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Gareth Jenkins

Where Is the Labour Party Heading?

(Autumn 1985)

From International Socialism 2 : 30 Autumn 1985, pp. 3–41.
Transcribed by Marven Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In 1981 Tony Benn was the hero of the left. He came within a whisker of defeating Denis Healey, the man who had initiated pre-Thatcher monetarist policy in Callaghan’s government, in the contest for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Those – like Neil Kinnock – who had claimed to be on the left but abstained in the final voting were branded as Judases. A new, revitalised socialist politics appeared to be on the verge of triumph. The end of the rotten, compromise politics that had so disfigured the 1974–79 Labour government was in sight.

Two years later, that very same Judas, Neil Kinnock, replaced Michael Foot as leader of the Labour Party. His left-wing opponent, Eric Heffer, was trounced. The majority of the left that had voted for Benn now voted for Kinnock. By early 1985, the conversion of the left was plain. Michael Meacher, once one of Benn’s closest colleagues and now in the Shadow Cabinet, was cooperating with Kinnock and distancing himself from Benn. Even Benn, still on the back benches, was making it clear he respected the current leadership. Barring accidents, Kinnock will be the next Labour prime minister.

What has happened? Is it, perhaps, the case that the surge of support for a radical alternative to the Labourism of the past is now spent and we are simply slipping back into the old routine? Or is it as many on the Labour left claim – that the left is continuing to advance, not as spectacularly as with Benn’s near triumph, but steadily, on a wider and surer basis, gradually replacing the old right-wingers with younger, more dynamic MPs? That may involve being less aggressive with one’s politics, but Kinnock, after all, is a unilateralist with leftish inclinations, whose position must be reinforced in order to end once and for all the domination of the old right.

These are important questions, and on how we answer them depends our view of the next Labour government. It seems undoubtedly true that the Labour Party is changing. Many thousands of activists were involved in extra-parliamentary campaigns in support of the miners’ strike and against rate-capping. Issues like feminism, anti-racialism and gay rights have made an impression on the party that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. The left has also transformed local government. The mood is more hopeful than it has been at any time since the early 60s, when the election of a new, dynamic leader of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson, seemed to open up new vistas of socialist advance and an end to thirteen years of frustrating opposition to the Tory government.

But to mention Harold Wilson is instantly to sound an ominous note. For the experience of the 1964 to 1970 Labour government rapidly killed off the aspirations many held that the march towards socialism would be resumed. Today’s Labour left are painfully aware of what happened to Wilson. But they are convinced that they have learnt the lesson and that history will not repeat itself. Are they justified? Or is it that the nature of the Labour Party itself, irrespective of the quality of its leaders or the sincerity of its rank and file, dooms any future Labour government to tread the same anti-socialist path as before?

The Labour left

Let us first establish what has happened politically to the Labour left before examining its hegemony (or otherwise) in the party. That the left is in retreat from its former positions has been evident for a long time – in fact, ever since the peace of Bishop’s Stortford was negotiated between the top party and trade union leaders in January 1982 after the bruising contest between Benn and Healey. Under pressure from the trade union leaders, Benn agreed not to stand again and talked of ‘unity behind the existing leadership and the existing policies’. [1] The Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC), which had been the principal campaigning body for Benn’s politics, decided to put themselves on the register endorsed by the 1982 conference, despite the fact that as part of the witch hunt against Militant it was also part of the general offensive against the hard, Bennite left.

Both during and after the disastrous 1983 general election, the retreat continued. Benn’s claim that 8½ million people had voted for real socialism was greeted by embarrassment (or rejection) by the rest of the left. Even Militant, which used the fact of gaining two MPs as evidence of left advance, showed signs of trimming their sails by running campaigns that studiously omitted any reference to their distinctive policy of nationalising the top 200 monopolies. [2] In the leadership elections later that year, the LCC endorsed Kinnock rather than Heffer. Even Meacher, Benn’s stand-in while Benn waited to get re-elected to parliament, was hardly reassuring:

Talk of the politics of betrayal (a word that I never use, and deplore) must be set behind us ... rejectionist attitudes towards the Parliamentary Labour Party, if they survive in some quarters, need to be revised. [3]

It could be argued that the retreat was merely tactical, involving little loss of principle and dictated by the need to bow before the anti-left storm raised by both the witch hunt of Militant and Labour’s hammering at the polls. And it is true that in 1984 the left made the running in generating support for the miners’ strike and for a spirited campaign against rate-capping, involving in both cases varying degrees of opposition from the leadership, including Kinnock. With the Labour left talking boldly of defiance of the law, there appeared to be no signs of retreat. But underneath, the retreat went on. At the Labour Party conference that year, no protest worth the name was raised against Kinnock (despite his clear sabotaging of the miners), or – and this was more significant – against Hattersley, whose speech on economic policy was in open, right-wing contradiction to conference policy.

By the beginning of 1985 a theory to justify retreat began to be pieced together. Tribune, in its New Year comment, took the plunge. Nigel Williamson, who had replaced the Bennite Chris Mullin as editor, began what has since amounted to a manifesto for the new, soft left with a revealing paragraph:

The next general election will be won or lost over the coming year. That statement may sound dramatic given that the election may not come until 1988, but one of the lessons of Labour’s 1983 defeat was that elections are not decided in the brief duration of a three-week campaign but are determined by the image which a party presents over a much longer perspective. [4]

Williamson then outlined four main reasons why 1985 would prove critical for the image of the party approaching the next election. First, there was the ‘unfinished business’ of the miners’ strike; secondly, there were the ‘government-imposed ballots’ trade unions had to hold on the political levy, thirdly, the reselection of the bulk of Labour MPs, and fourthly, the battle over rate-capping. In the face of these political battles, Williamson argued:

Given the scale of the problems, the maximum unity around winnable and realisable aims and objectives becomes essential. This does not mean that we sacrifice our principles on the altar of pragmatism, but it does mean that anyone who puts factional interest above the will to win does the Labour movement a grave disservice.

Ultra-Leftism, which is only interested in using the miners’ strike to attack Neil Kinnock, must receive just as short shrift as the antics of Right-wingers who cannot wait for Arthur Scargill and the Left to come a cropper. [5]

This apparently-even handed criticism of both the ‘ultra-left’ and the right meant, on the one hand, rejecting calls for a general strike (Benn, it should be remembered, had called for one) and, on the other, attacking the ‘new realism’ of many trade union leaders and their failure to offer any real solidarity with the miners. It also meant, in the context of rate-capping, criticising both those who urged defiance of the law ‘as some kind of litmus test of socialist commitment’ [6] and those (like Labour’s front-bench) who publicly attacked councils pursuing a fighting strategy.

Williamson’s ‘middle’ position between the hard left and the leadership led him to criticise Kinnock for allowing ‘his reservations about the conduct of the (miners’) dispute to obscure his commitment to the strikers’ cause.’ Nevertheless:

... hunting for heretics and purging doubters will achieve nothing and opposing Neil Kinnock for the party leadership would be a futile gesture which could only damage our chances of winning the next election.

The centre of gravity in the party has shifted to the Left in recent years. Neil Kinnock is the product of that and while it is depressing to see him siding with the Right so consistently, it should not be impossible to construct a majority Centre-Left coalition around the party leader. Such a coalition would reflect the wishes of the party in the country far more accurately than the Centre-Right forces which currently dominate both the National Executive and the Shadow Cabinet. [7]

Williamson concludes his comment with this warning and hope:

The Left will need to practise a self-denying ordinance on some issues. Neil Kinnock will need to develop the strength to stand up to the Right on others. If both can achieve that and meet each other half-way, the prospect of a Left-wing Labour government committed to real and radical reform after the next election would surely come a step nearer. [8]

The rationale, then, for this considerable shift of a significant section of the left from its former positions is based on two considerations. The major one (the one which frames the article) is the necessity to win the next general election. That means a scaling down of objectives in the interest of unity. The second is intended as an important qualification on the first. The purpose is not to win at any cost (what would be the point of retaining any socialist principles?), but to ensure that the leadership can be made to deliver some real changes when in power. Hence Williamson attempts to strike a bargain: if Kinnock will stop playing the right’s game, the left will forego the luxury of pure opposition and move in behind him.

The problem with Williamson’s position is the failure to see that the acceptance of the necessity of winning the next general election effectively ditches any qualification put upon it and makes the bargain one-sided. The point becomes clear when one considers two of Williamson’s own reasons why 1985 would be critical for Labour: the miners’ strike and the fight against rate-capping. Now that the first has ended in defeat and the second in collapse, what exists to put pressure on Kinnock to move left? In the absence of struggle at the point of production, the left is forced to manoeuvre on the terrain of electoralist politics. Since it has conceded that winning rather than sticking to its principles is the priority it is no longer in a position to put up very much resistance on the terrain of electoralist politics to which the right is so suited. Unity, therefore, is less and less on the left’s terms and more and more on the right’s.

If Williamson is blind to the problem, others on the left are not. Chris Mullin, the previous editor, sourly pointed out the reality of the shift away from principles:

There is every prospect that Labour will stumble into office at the next election. It will not be the Labour Party of Tony Benn – but that of Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley and Denis Healey.

And this will be backed up by a different kind of Parliamentary Labour Party. Outside the Shadow Cabinet the old-style, Gaitskellite, machine politicians who believed passionately in the Bomb and the Common Market have become almost extinct. Many have been replaced by what we might, a little harshly perhaps, describe as value-free thinkers – ambitious, clever young men (and a handful of women) who have achieved selection by chanting the slogans of the hour and who would be equally at home in a Kinnock, Hattersley or Benn government.

Their definition of victory is when they get the jobs. My definition of victory when something changes for the better. [9]

Mullin was equally perspicacious about the kind of pressures that make Labour leaders abandon their commitments:

I am sure [Kinnock] would genuinely like to remove nuclear weapons from British soil, but there is nothing in his record so far to suggest that he would stand his ground in the face of the unremitting hostility of those he has placed around him, let alone the pressure which the Americans would undoubtedly bring to bear. [10]

Mullin’s conclusion was unambiguous and correct:

It may be ... that many Labour Party members ... are prepared to pay almost any price for the election of a Labour government. If so, we should all be clear about the consequences. We will be electing yet another Harold Wilson government.

The only difference next time round will be that no one will have any right to express surprise or indignation at the outcome. The path that the Labour Party is now beginning to tread is well-trodden and everyone knows where it leads. [11]

In reply, Williamson did little more than repeat his earlier arguments about winning Kinnock for the left and ended by asking Mullin:

Do you honestly believe that a government led by Neil Kinnock would support American military global adventures as Wilson did in Vietnam? Do you really believe that Gerald Kaufman would introduce racist immigration laws like Labour’s 1968 Act? Are you seriously telling us that John Prescott would bring in anti-union legislation of the kind that Barbara Castle tried with In Place of Strife in 1969? [12]

Williamson will probably live to regret those rhetorical questions. Better Labour left-wingers – Stafford Cripps or Aneurin Bevan, for example – have performed worse volte-faces than the motley crew he mentions here. But on one point, implicitly, he scores: has Mullin, as a committed Labour Party member, any choice but to work flat out for a Kinnock government, despite knowing, as he does, to what that leads?

In Bennism without Benn, an article which appeared in the same month in which Mullin was castigating the ascendancy of the ambitious, value-free thinkers interested only in jobs under Labour, Patrick Seyd spelt out for New Socialist readers the extent of the new left’s alignment. Like Williamson he emphasised their desire for a middle way between the ‘ultra-left’ and the right, their attempt to detach Kinnock from the embrace of the right, and their search for unity and popularity rather than purity of position. He was cautious about the extent of the realignment, its coherence or leadership, but was certain of a shift at all levels of the party, from wards and constituency parties upwards.

However, on the question of leadership he does point to the emergence of an influential bloc on the NEC, all former hard left sympathisers. First, there is Michael Meacher, who, despite the disorganisation of the parliamentary left in the autumn of 1984, was elected to the Shadow Cabinet, where he took responsibility for Health and Social Security. Secondly, there is David Blunkett, who, as leader of Sheffield City Council and chairperson of the Local Government Campaign Unit, played a crucial role in the anti-rate-capping fight. Now that he has been selected as parliamentary candidate for Joan Maynard’s safe Sheffield Brightside seat his influence is likely to increase. Finally, there is Tom Sawyer, deputy general secretary of NUPE, who opposed the hard left’s call in December for a general strike, and whose distancing from Benn can be measured in words that echo those of Meacher’s quoted earlier:

We shouldn’t be searching continually for issues where there has to be a division or a split. The NEC, as the leading committee of a socialist organisation, should be a place where members behave as comrades. [13]

Seyd does not fully seem to realise the importance of this line-up between leading members of the new left in the PLP, the constituencies and the trade unions. Meacher, Blunkett and Sawyer increasingly tend to vote together, and although that is normally as part of the rest of the NEC left, where they tend to differentiate themselves is highly significant. Apart from the issue already referred to of the general strike, there has been the example of Meacher’s and Sawyer’s voting against Benn and Heffer on the question of NATO membership. Benn and Heffer proposed that in line with the Labour Party’s policy on nuclear disarmament Britain should reject membership of NATO (though just such a proposal had been defeated at Conference). Meacher and Sawyer rejected the move on the grounds of the danger of reopening the debate two or three years before a general election. [14]

But the trio also stand up to the right. Blunkett, for example, put an amendment, which excluded specific mention of Militant, to the witch-hunting document on Labour Party membership prepared by the right-wing. The amendment was carried; so we can thank Blunkett for the fact that in formal terms at least there is no NEC led purge on ‘extremists’. [15]

Sawyer is perhaps the least well known of the three. But as a trade unionist, with links to the rest of the trade union bureaucracy, he is in a position to indicate to the soft left just what forces they can rely on to back up their position. According to Seyd, the new left receives support from union leaders with real clout (Bickerstaffe of NUPE, Jimmy Knapp of the NUR, and – most important of all – Ron Todd of the TGWU), all of whom ‘opposed the TUC’s discredited “new realism” moves, but who are looking to Kinnock to win the next election at the head of a campaigning party. There is a shared emphasis on political, rather than industrial, action as the vehicle for change.’ [16]

Influential sections of the trade union bureaucracy, not of the right but of the centre-left, are setting limits on what can and cannot be done. The hard left may call for a general strike, but it is the trade union leadership which delivers. That dictates not only the industrial policy of the next Labour government but also, given the left’s increasing cooperation with the trade union bureaucracy inside the party, the limits of the left’s future protests against the effects (wage restraint, and the like) of that policy. The ‘shared emphasis on political, rather than industrial, action’ is an ominous indicator that the left trade union leadership will subordinate rank-and-file strength to the need to get the Labour Party elected at any price, thus paving the way to the kind of demoralisation that occurred under the 1974 to 1979 government when the left leaders did all in their power to police their members.

One final aspect of the left’s new mood of cooperation and unity which calls for comment is their ‘acute awareness that organisational reforms are essential if the party is to campaign effectively.’ [17] This may seem a minor point, and Seyd does not make much of it. However, in a party like the Labour Party, who controls the organisation controls the politics, whatever the constitution, conference or NEC may say. One of the less examined features of the recent changes in the Labour Party has been the upgrading of organisational matters. Robin Cook, Kinnock’s right-hand man and destined to do better in this year’s Shadow Cabinet elections because of support from both the Campaign and Tribune groups of MPs, has been pressing for some time for a major shake-up at Walworth Road headquarters (not without ruffling a few feathers). He has praised Ken Livingstone’s use of the techniques of the communications industry and has mocked the ‘delusion that we display the rugged honesty of our policies by indifference to their respective presentation.’ [18] The new general secretary, Larry Whitty (another Kinnock supporter), is also an organisation man.

Why organisation is not a neutral conductor of pre-existing policy comes clear when we realise that in effect the most important and powerful body in the Labour Party is not the NEC but the newly set-up Campaign Committee. The committee justifies its existence on the grounds of needing to get Labour’s message across as widely as possible – a point that the new left is anxious to stress. But if electoral victory is the name of the game then the left can hardly complain if the Campaign Committee, answerable in reality only to the leadership, ‘modifies’ conference policy – for organisational and communication reasons only, of course. Few besides Benn and Heffer appear hostile to this development. [19]

In 1981, the left argued that however good the policy coming out of conference was, the leaders could always subvert it because they were not accountable to the party as a whole; that was why it was important to subject the leadership to democratic control. By 1982, the left argued against this perfectly correct conclusion: it did not matter about the leaders because at least the policy, being under conference control, was good; therefore, do not submit the leadership to democratic scrutiny. Now the left is even abandoning policy to control by the Campaign Committee because of the paramountcy of effective communication to win the next general election. Step by step the left has retreated politically. At first, tacitly and unwittingly and then later, openly and proudly, the retreat has been justified by reference to the pressing need to return Labour to power. Thus the nature of the Labour Party itself, its basis in electoralism, sets even more restrictive limits to the socialist aspirations of the left.

When Chris Mullin talks of the disappearance of the old right machine politician, he is not altogether correct. It is true that last year their domination in the Shadow Cabinet owed more to luck than any other factor. There was no cooperation between the hard left Campaign Group of MPs and the more traditional left Tribune group (Tribune did not offer a slate), and the right picked up more support than their numerical strength warranted. Ronald Butt, the Times columnist, commented that ‘a Shadow Cabinet, two thirds of which are moderates, is not even truly representative of the Labour Party in Parliament, which is clearly left-wing,’ and speculated that the reason for this was that the left was reluctant to translate its conference success into a parliamentary triumph for fear of alienating the electorate. [20] Whatever the reason (and there may be no more than a grain of truth in Butt’s speculation), this year the new-found unity between Campaign and Tribune over a common slate [21] is almost certain to ensure that Michael Meacher will be joined by many of his co-thinkers, leaving perhaps only Healey and Hattersley as the major standard-bearers of the old right. The dream the soft left has of delivering Kinnock from the grip of the right looks like coming true.

The signs of a long-term shift in the left-right balance within the PLP have been evident for some time: Already, before the last general election, James Curran, the founding editor of New Socialist, could claim that were Labour to retain the same number of MPs as in 1979 the left wing of the PLP would increase from 31% to about 44%. [22] Although there is every reason to accept that this upwards trend has not been reversed, an examination of the current reselection process shows that no one should set too much store by the fact.

Under the new procedures reselection has to start not less than eighteen months and not more than three years after the last general election. The majority of reselection meetings for the 209 sitting MPs has just taken place (the remaining constituencies will pick their candidates in the autumn and winter of 1985 and spring of 1986). The changes resulting from selection have not been as dramatic as the left had hoped or the right feared. Expectations that right-wing MPs would get booted out in droves or retire en masse to avoid the indignity of being dumped have not been realised. Nor has the hard left benefitted.

When the furore over reselection died down right-wing MPs discovered that if they were prepared to massage their constituency parties rather than treat them with their customary contempt, they ran few risks of deselection. Also, the merest hint of standing as an independent acted as an adequate deterrent to most constituency parties discontented with their MP but mindful of the Tatchell debacle in 1983. Thus right-wing front benchers such as Peter Shore and Gerald Kaufman, both of whom were thought at one time to be under threat – survived the ordeal.

Even Frank Field, notorious for his advocacy of a ‘rainbow’ coalition with the Alliance parties (embarrassing even to his fellow right-wingers), survived. Although at one time he could only muster 25 supporters (with an equal number going to the then Militant contender) [23], in the end he won convincingly: 52 votes as against 21 for Cathy Wilson, a Militant supporter best known, as Tribune unkindly put it, ‘for having achieved Labour’s lowest ever parliamentary vote – 2.4% of the poll in the Isle of Wight.’ [24] Similarly, the right-wing MP for Swansea West, Alan Williams, survived a reselection battle against a Militant supporter, this time by the manoeuvre of a shortlist of one, a tactic which has been used elsewhere.

Where Militant was well placed and expected to make gains because they did not face the problem of challenging a sitting MP (because of retirement), they failed. In Glasgow Provan the Militant candidate missed selection to a safe seat by only one vote; and in Glasgow Pollok, where there was another left candidate, by nine votes to the right-winger. The Scottish LCC appears to have been instrumental in organising against Militant, and the three cases (of Birkenhead, Field’s constituency, and the two Scottish constituencies) show that in the final analysis the soft left was prepared to vote for the right-winger rather than the hard left candidate. [25]

Whether Militant will even finish up with the six candidates it had in the 1983 election is a moot point. In Brighton Kemptown, for example, where Militant seemed entrenched, their long-standing prospective parliamentary candidate was deselected (in favour of a ‘sensible’ left-winger). There have even been reports of moves from the Coventry South East constituency party to challenge the sitting Militant MP, Dave Nellist, though these appear to have come to nothing. On 29 March 1985, after more than 40 MPs had been reselected, Tribune could report, under the significant heading, ‘No Upsets So Far’, in the following terms:

Among the new prospective Labour candidates selected in place of retiring MPs there would appear to be a slight, though by no means decisive, swing to the left.

Among the marginal seats to have selected so far there is no sign of a political shift. [26]

Since then nothing has occurred to alter the picture. The only point of interest to note is the elevation of important leaders of the council left to prospective parliamentary position. David Blunkett, as we have already mentioned, is almost certain to become MP (in place of Joan Maynard); the same is true for Ken Livingstone, having displaced Reg Freeson for Brent East. John Austin Walker, the leader of Greenwich Council (second to last in London before giving in to rate-capping), stands a chance of defeating the SDP MP, John Cartwright, having staved off his Militant rival in the selection battle by two votes.

What we can conclude, then, about the future nature of the PLP is that the right-wing machine politician is not yet extinct though on the wane, the hard left (including Militant) will remain in limbo; and the soft is likely to become more, but not overwhelmingly influential. Kinnock is probably going to be surrounded by more congenial colleagues than the older right-wing MPs he inherited from the Callaghan era.

That means the new left will increasingly become responsible for the policies that Kinnock and his team are now formulating as the basis for the election campaign and the next Labour government. The important question is whether the left have finished up with the worst of all worlds, that of being in charge of right-wing policy.

The next Labour government

What Labour intends to do in office is already clear in outline. The prospect is far from inviting.

Much of what has been announced so far amounts to a very modest intervention in the economy. Hattersley has unveiled plans for a National Bank based on taking over a City institution and for a kind of indirect exchange control by taxing disproportionate investment abroad. The idea is to stimulate investment in the British economy in order to create jobs. But there is no intention of rolling back the years of unemployment; the aim is to cut the number out of work by one million in the first two years of a Labour government – in other words, to take us back to a position worse than at the end of the Callaghan era.

Lest anyone imagine that this is a right-wing policy foisted on the left, or merely the first stage in a longer-term operation, we should pay attention to Kinnock’s words at the TGWU biennial conference: ‘We are seriously seeking a modern system for full employment. That is not the full employment of the 1950s, 1960s or even the early 1970s – we know it’s not coming back in that form ... We need to reduce the numbers requiring work(?!).’ [27] No protest from Ron Todd, or any other prominent left trade union leader, is recorded. The abandonment of the traditional Labour aim of full employment is clear, and it comes from the man the left hope to rescue from the right.

If the prospects for the unemployed do not look too rosy under Labour, nor do wages or trade union freedoms. The policy document, A New Partnership – A New Britain, launched with a flourish in early August by Kinnock and Willis, proves to be far from new. The relationship between government and unions bears a strong family resemblance to the kind of compact or contract that every Labour government since the war has introduced to hold down wages. It is true, however, that legislation is firmly repudiated: ‘Statutory norms and government-imposed wage restraints offer no solution.’ [28] Hattersley has made it clear that Labour’s economic policy must be underpinned by some form of voluntary wages policy. But neither he nor anyone else has spelled out what happens if voluntary measures fail: would Labour resort to statutory limitations after all?

The signs are not good. Tony Benn apparently tried at an NEC meeting at the end of June to insert an amendment that statutory wage restraint ‘therefore will not be implemented’, which was defeated. [29] Ron Todd, however, appeared to offer some hope that not even voluntary restraint would be tried, when he refused categorically to offer ‘an open cheque’. But all the same he made it clear that as part of a package he would not rule out pay from the discussions he would be prepared to have with Labour leaders. [30]

On trade union legislation the document appears to stand firm: ‘... the next Labour government will repeal the present government’s divisive legislation and replace it with positive legislation.’ [31] Unfortunately it all depends what is meant by ‘positive’. It has now become clear that Kinnock wishes to retain some elements of Tory trade union legislation, though which ones has not yet been revealed. It seems reasonable to presume balloting is much to the taste of the trade union bureaucracy since it serves to reinforce their control over the rank and file. What seems likely is that the Labour government will repeal those bits of legislation irksome to the bureaucracy but retain those which reinforce their policing function over their members.

Many on the left still claim, however, that in one area of policy, defence, the leadership is sticking to conference policy. Kinnock, they say, is committed to unilateralism, and even the right wing is forced to go along with it. Unfortunately, on closer examination, the depth of that commitment is much shallower. To start with, the cancellation of Trident (which would, of course, be welcome) is a move that sections of the defence establishment are not totally hostile to. Its immense cost puts pressure on conventional defence. Kinnock has already made it clear that the pursuit of a ‘non-nuclear defence policy’ is intended to counter the threat ‘to our funding of our conventional defence industries.’ [32] That is far from being a commitment to a reduction of the military burden and to peace. Kinnock seems prepared to operate within the terms laid down by the requirements of the military establishment.

Secondly, opposition to cruise missiles inevitably involves opposition to American bases. Unilateral opposition to cruise entails a unilateral ending of American control over the bases where cruise missiles (under sole American control) are sited. However, Kinnock has made it clear that US nuclear bases will remain until they are negotiated out of Britain. [33] In other words, their dismantling is conditional upon agreement; there would be no unilateral abrogation of the American government’s right to use them.

Given the enormous pressure that the US would exercise (exploiting Britain’s retention of NATO membership), the excuse for stalling is already there. We might well finish up with the Greek government ‘solution’, which was that despite the pre-election pledge by socialist leader Papandreou, the US were permitted after negotiations to retain their bases till the end of the decade (in effect, indefinitely.)

Furthermore, interviewed in the European Nuclear Disarmament Journal Denzil Davies, the shadow spokesman on Defence, said he would accept an arrangement like Denmark’s whereby NATO nuclear forces could be moved into the country in a crisis. Tribune noted correctly that this was a shift in policy away from unilateralism. From a multilateralist right-winger like Davies the concession is entirely predictable; but the concession was defended by ‘unilateralist’ Kinnock as being no shift at all in party policy. [34]

That leaves Polaris. While it is true that the cancellation of Trident would produce unilateralism by obsolescence (Polaris’s life span only extends to the 1990s), it is not clear that the dismantling of Polaris would begin the day after the election of the next Labour government. In this respect the retention of NATO membership provides a crucial escape-clause. Responsibility to the nuclear club (and a desire to ‘influence’ it) would mean that Britain would retain its independent nuclear deterrent, putting Polaris into the negotiating package between the superpowers (something the Tories are not interested in). Thus getting rid of Polaris would have to wait until a satisfactory conclusion to arms negotiations had been reached.

Whatever the intentions of the non-nuclear defence policy the commitment to NATO is the determining factor that drags Labour back towards multilateralism. No wonder right-wingers like Healey and Callaghan could support the NEC statement on non-nuclear defence at the 1984 Labour Party conference. It is pure delusion on the part of the Labour left to think that Healey, as front bench shadow spokesman on Foreign Affairs, has been cowed into submission by the pressure of unilateralist opinion in the party. On the contrary, he knows that there are enough loopholes in the policy to avoid tying a future Labour government down to anything so inconvenient as a real drive to rid Britain of nuclear weapons.

The range of policies that is beginning to take shape – whether measures to stimulate economic growth, trade-union law reform, or defence policy – is in effect less radical than anything we have seen in a decade. The lessons of the past, that there is a yawning credibility gap between Labour’s promises and Labour’s performance, have been well learnt. But whereas once the left would have agreed with Benn that performance should match promise (these are ‘hard times for our people, and it calls for a hard response from a hard left ... Labour will never win power by keeping its head down ...’) [35], now most of the left accepts that what keeps Labour from power is too many promises. Therefore scale them down to what very modestly can be performed.

And Kinnock is certainly modest. He accepts high levels of unemployment, holding down wages, and, for all his passionate opposition to Thatcher’s devastation of the Welfare State, no full restoration of cuts in the health service. [36] If Kinnock is, as the left fondly imagine, dependent for the moment on the right (from whom one would expect such things), he is a very willing dependent. And the left, too, is a very willing dependent on Kinnock. If Meacher – as a typical member of the kind of left which hopes to displace the traditional right – refuses even before the assumption of office to join in criticism about the increasingly ‘anti-socialist’ nature [37] of the Labour Party’s evolving programme (expecting him to resign from the Shadow Cabinet would be asking too much), then the idea that as a government minister he will become more critical is quite unthinkable.

The left as a whole has kept silent about Kinnock’s championing of what Labour proposes to do. If it is prepared to tolerate anti-working class policies now, it will do so under a Labour government – and even be prepared to implement them. The left’s journey from rejection of the right and all its works to toleration of right-wing policies when carried out by kindred spirits has been long and stealthy; the final stage of the journey, substituting for and becoming the right, is not yet complete, and the idea would no doubt be repudiated as a vicious slander. Alas, the left forgets the history of its predecessors.

Kinnock’s forebears

If the revolutionary party is the memory of the class, then a reformist party represents its collective amnesia. Nowhere is that more evident than with the Labour left’s attitude to the leader. The parallels between Harold Wilson and Neil Kinnock are striking. Sometimes the sense of history repeating itself occurs to the soft left – only to be rejected. Ken Livingstone, for example, is quite aware of the way in which the fate of Wilson might prefigure that of Kinnock. In reply to a question from Tribune about whether he shared the interviewer’s belief ‘for which the politest thing I have been called is naive, that the next Labour government can avoid the mistakes of the Wilson and Callaghan governments,’ Livingstone replied:

Neil Kinnock would have to be the most breathtakingly stupid leader of the Labour Party not to have seen how those last two Labour Governments failed. He was there. He watched it.

Harold Wilson’s failure in the sixties was part of the formative years of Neil Kinnock’s political development. He had no illusions about it. He then watched the failure of the Callaghan Government.

I am not one of those people who writes off Neil Kinnock at all. If he has learnt the lessons of why those Governments failed, he can avoid repeating them. [38]

Stupid or not, Kinnock may indeed end up repeating the failures, but for reasons to do with the nature of the Labour Party and not with his inability to learn lessons.

Of course it would be foolish to deny the differences between Wilson and Kinnock. Wilson, for example, never laid claim to being a unilateralist. For most of his career he had few differences with the right-wing policies of the leadership. His left-wing reputation was founded on two issues: he had, along with Nye Bevan, resigned from Attlee’s government in 1951 over the introduction of prescription charges (though Paul Foot gives good reason for doubting the sincerity of his motives) [39]; and he had stood for leader against Gaitskell in 1960 after Gaitskell had been defeated at conference on the question of unilateralism. His prime reason for standing against Gaitskell had little to do with disagreement about the leadership’s policies; it was rather to do with his annoyance at Gaitskell’s unbending tactics which refused the kind of compromising unity Wilson preferred. As Miliband put it:

What separated him from Gaitskell and the latter’s friends (apart from the dislike, distrust and even contempt which they felt for him) was a matter of tactics and a certain style. Wilson had an infinitely greater sense of the complex strands which make up the political culture of the Labour movement, and he realised far better than did the ‘Hampstead set’ that the ‘unity’ of the Party, which meant in effect the neutralisation of the Left, could be achieved at a very small price, indeed at next to no price, provided the leadership was willing to wrap up whatever policies it thought suitable in language which would appeal to the Left. [40]

We shall have occasion to return to the question of style later. The left fell for Wilson because he appeared to be different. His promise of a new Britain ‘forged in the white heat of a technological revolution’ [41], coupled with his witty invective against the ‘Edwardian establishment mentality’ [42] symbolised by Sir Alec Douglas Home’s Tory premiership, seemed to open up new vistas for socialist advance under his youthful leadership.

The left hypnotised itself to ignore the real content of Wilson’s philosophy:

... what Wilson was attacking was not British capitalism as a system, but some facets of it, the ‘old boy network’, ‘candy-floss commercialism’, ‘parasitic speculators’, the ‘grouse moor mentality’, and ... what, in effect, he counterposed to this was not the vision of a socialist society, but of a renovated capitalism, freed from its aristocratic accretions, dynamic, professional, entrepreneurial, numerate and efficient. [43]

In other words, the programme Wilson offered was the modernisation of British capitalism and for it to be managed, not by the gentlemen amateurs who had traditionally run it, but by a new thrusting generation of technocrats and meritocrats.

The adulation that Wilson received from the left is difficult to believe. Even the hard left of the period was taken in. Michael Foot, who had been so critical of Labour policy that he had had the whip withdrawn in 1961 for opposing Tory defence estimate, argued that Wilson had:

not only qualities of political acumen, political skill and survival power which no one denies him. Other considerable qualities too for a Labour leader – a coherence of ideas, a readiness to follow unorthodox courses, a respect for democracy ... above all a deep and genuine love of the Labour movement. [44]

Clive Jenkins, at that stage in his career a militant trade union leader, wrote after the 1963 TUC that Harold Wilson was opposed to wage restraint. [45] Even those who claimed to be Marxist let themselves be duped. Tom Nairn, of New Left Review, wrote on the eve of Labour’s 1964 election victory:

There is no doubt that, relatively, with regard to the past annals of the Labour leadership, Wilson represents a kind of progress. Wilson constantly professes the habitual Labour contempt for theory – ‘theology’ as he calls it –– but has far more theoretical grasp than any previous leader. Unlike so many former left-wing figures who have moved towards power he has never actually renounced or broken with his past; he is likely to be much more open to left-wing ideas and pressures than his predecessors. In contrast to Gaitskell and Attlee, Wilson seems singularly free from the bigoted anti-Communism which has been a surrogate for thought and action in many social-democratic movements. [46]

This then was the shining knight of the Labour movement who, in his first period of office (1964–1970), broke every single commitment real or imagined. His respect for democracy, love of the Labour movement, refusal to be anti-communist, opposition to wage restraint etc., were demonstrated in his 1965 measures to hold down wages (repeated more stringently in 1966), in his vicious red-baiting attack on the seamen’s strike in 1966, in his deflationary measures affecting living standards, and in his total subservience to the American war effort in Vietnam. Not much of his reputation even for decency survived the introduction of immigration controls in 1968, aimed at Kenyan Asians.

Why assume that Kinnock will be any different? The problem has nothing to do with sincerity or intentions; it has to do with attempting to run an uncongenial political system. While possibly there is less adulation of Kinnock than there was of Wilson, the same blindness to the reality of the process affects the left. Just as Wilson’s rhetoric kept the left in a state of trance, so Kinnock’s style, enthusiastic but blurred just at the point where clarity is needed (he also keeps silent for as long as possible on tricky issues), bemuses the current left. The slickness and apparent novelty of presentation, for example, the American-style building of Kinnock (with wife) as pseudo-presidential material, means that the reality of policy can be left in mellow obscurity. Any hostages to Tory or media fortune are studiously avoided. Clause Four nationalisation is replaced by supposedly innovatory conceptions of co-ownership and participation at local level. The campaigning style of local government, with its clever use of advertising techniques, can be hawked around as the best way of involving the community in their own affairs; the fact that such techniques have not saved jobs or prevented further decline in services can be ignored.

In this concentration on image, style and presentation, the parallel with the Wilson years is informative. Paul Foot has pointed out the following difference between the 1959 and 1964 election campaigns:

The difference in the two campaigns was reflected in the manifestos and posters. The 1959 posters of old people in slums were replaced by gay young executives, forged in the white heat of the technological revolution. Labour’s education policy was based now on the need for more and more scientists. Labour’s housing policy switched its attention from council-house tenants and slums to house-buyers and mortgage-holders. [47]

The spate of glossy briefings coming out of Walworth Road suggest that the same professionalism and marketing emphasis will shape the next election campaign; but it will also be a retreat in terms of the policy presented in 1983.

The evolution of the left in the years of the Wilson administrations is instructive. Some left-wing MPs woke from their trance to see what Wilsonism meant in practice and from 1966 onwards (just at the point when Wilson gained the kind of majority that made back bench revolts useless), a hard core were in near-permanent opposition to the government. Powerless to prevent the government pursuing anti-socialist measures and faced with threats from Wilson of a general election or bids to replace him with a right-winger, the hard-left MPs persistently and pathetically continued to believe that Wilsonism was better than Gaitskellism, even though Wilson’s record could hardly have been worse than Gaitskell’s had he lived.

But if some remained in impotent opposition many others were coopted. It is difficult to believe now that people like Peter Shore, David (now Lord) Ennals, Shirley Williams (no less) and Jeremy Bray were all once bitter critics of Wilson’s pro-Vietnam policy, or that Reginald Freeson (now ousted by Ken Livingstone) and Dick Taverne (who was later the first ‘social democrat’ defector) were once determined opponents in 1966, along with Ennals, Williams and Bray, of the government’s immigration White Paper. Yet within two years they were all given jobs and absorbed into government.

It is easy to dismiss them as sell-out merchants. But the process of evolution from left to right is not simply attributable to defective morality or secret ambitions. Paul Foot well explained the process:

The offer such a job places a left-wing MP in an intolerable dilemma. In the first place, the logic of his place in Parliament tells him that he must accept a place in the Government. How, he argues, can he press for more left-wing policies from a Government, and then refuse to join the Government when offered a place in it? Moreover, particularly in offices like the Scottish office and the Ministry of Transport, the political complexion of an Under-Secretary can make a difference to a host of administrative decisions. As against that, the Minister is silenced on the broad issues. He has no voice in the Government, which never meets. And, when necessary, he can be hauled out to vote for the Cabinet’s policy. [48]

Can one doubt that both the present and future crop of new MPs will find themselves in the same dilemma? The logic that compels them to make their peace with Kinnock will compel them to accept government positions, despite qualms and criticisms.

The example of Labour’s best-known rebel (certainly one glorified in the left’s mythology), Nye Bevan, illustrates perfectly Foot’s point. Bevan had refused a position in the wartime coalition cabinet and maintained a lively left-wing opposition to the Labour right, but called upon by Attlee in the 1945 government to introduce the National Health Service, how could he refuse the responsibility of being the in minister in charge, a position which might otherwise have fallen into less capable and committed hands? The price paid was the silence on the failure of the Attlee government to advance beyond its initial commitments to that assault on capitalism for which the left yearned. The left was thus deprived of its most effective leader.

Indeed, his ministerial position led him to defend the Attlee government’s massive increase in armaments expenditure in 1950. He thus connived at the inevitable squeezing of funds to welfare that the increase in military expenditure dictated. If his resignation the following year over the consequences (prescription charges) was principled, it was nevertheless illogical in view of his earlier behaviour and did nothing to sort out the confusion of the Labour left. [49]

Bevan’s later volte-face on unilateralism was the product of the same dilemma. Having in 1955 so challenged Attlee’s leadership that the whip was withdrawn, he then startled the Labour Party Conference in 1957 by denouncing unilateralism as an ‘emotional spasm’ which would send a British Foreign Secretary ‘naked into the chamber’. But by then he was Shadow Foreign Secretary and probably reckoned that the chance of having some ‘Socialist’ influence on foreign policy was worth smudging on his principles. [50]

If Bevan succumbed, most of the present hard left will, and so too will the lesser fry like Meacher and co.

The problem lies not in the quality of Labour MPs, but in the parliamentary road. The idea that capitalism can be eliminated by a majority of MPs (say, 350 plus) is fantastic, however many millions have voted for them. The fate of every Labour government is witness to the real forces that oppose every tiny attempt to introduce the tiniest of reforms. Not only is there the undemocratic machinery of the constitution (the Lords, the Monarchy) which instantly puts obstacles in the way of socialist change. There are also the permanent civil servants and the great bureaucracies of state that blunt every anti-capitalist initiative. Then there are, as Harold Wilson rapidly discovered, the speculative pressures of the financiers, whose ability to engineer sterling crises instantly puts Labour; governments on the defensive.

Finally, of course, there are those forces – the police, magistrature, judiciary, armed forces – which Labour governments never touch (on the contrary they use them, as Attlee and Wilson both did, against workers), whose function is to perpetuate the daily round of capitalist exploitation when all else fails.

Sometimes, a few of the Labour left recognise the scale of these obstacles blocking the parliamentary road (revolutionaries do not possess a monopoly of virtue in this respect). No left-wing MP before Tony Benn perceived the problem as clearly as Stafford Cripps in the 1930s. In his pamphlet Can Socialism Come by Constitutional Means? he warned that ‘the ruling class will go to almost any length to defeat Parliamentary action if the issue is the direct issue of the continuance of their financial and political control.’ [51] And if the Conservatives thought of resorting to a military dictatorship in a constitutional deadlock between a majority Labour government and the House of Lords ‘it would probably be better and more conducive to the general peace and welfare of the country for the Socialist Government to make itself temporarily into a dictatorship until matters could again be put to the test at the polls.’ [52]

This gives an indication of what Cripps realised would be necessary for the kind of socialist transformation he (and the Socialist League) wanted. Cripps enjoyed much support among the hard left of his day. At the 1934 Labour Party Conference no less than 75 amendments to the NEC’s document For Socialism and Peace were tabled. For Socialism and Peace was itself the most radical programme ever adopted (it called for public ownership over a very wide range of industries and services and the immediate abolition of the House of Lords). [53] That fact alone demonstrates how left-wing the opposition to the NEC was.

Yet, although Cripps continued throughout the 30s to be a thorn in the side of the Labour leadership, with his attempt to push the Labour Party into a Popular Front alliance with the Communist Party and the ILP, he was unsuccessful in turning the Labour Party leftwards. He dissolved the Socialist League, and, after temporary expulsion, eventually followed his former colleague on the Executive Socialist League, Clement Attlee, into respectability. He joined Churchill’s wartime cabinet and ended his parliamentary career by becoming Attlee’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1947, in which post he brought not socialist but the most orthodox of economic policies.

What Cripps failed to see, despite his perception in the 30s that capitalism could not be fought with anything but the most determined opposition, was that his chosen instrument was the wrong one. The idea that the Labour Party would contemplate, let alone use, the kind of emergency powers Cripps deemed necessary was absurd. The Labour Party had been founded as a thoroughly constitutional party; it would never place Labour’s interests (Clause Four notwithstanding) above Labour’s respect for the political system.

Once that is understood, the trajectory of Cripps’ career can be grasped. Since there could in his view be no alternative to the parliamentarianism of the Labour Party, first the Socialist League and then any kind of socialist principles had to be jettisoned. Better, he must have thought, to be able to do a little via parliament than nothing (so it would appear) outside it.

This sentiment has been echoed since by many less perceptive figures than Cripps, and no doubt explains the motivation of Meacher, Livingstone, Blunkett, et al. What could be more sensible than to ensure that a Labour Party (which is united – never mind on what terms) at least gets rid of a hated Tory government? If that means softening bits of one’s ideas then only an incorrigible sectarian – one who prefers the purity of powerlessness to the muckiness of power – would refuse.

What the left forgets is that the consequences, from Cripps onwards, are plain: cooption. As we have seen this is no accident, something that can be avoided in the future by refusing to be like Wilson to avoid Kinnockism being a rerun of Wilsonism the left would have to renounce what makes both inevitable – dependency on the essentially electoralist nature of the Labour Party and its orientation on parliament. And that is precisely the one thing they will not let go of.

The hard left and the activists in the localities

So far we have concentrated on shifts at the top of the party, assuming that the public pronouncements of the soft left, and rightward shift of its best-known leaders, represent a very profound shift in the Labour Party as a whole. But perhaps, however marginalised the hard left appears to be, the effect is no more than a kind of optical illusion which flows from looking from the top of the party downwards. Benn, for example, denies that a basic rightward shift has taken place. ‘The top,’ as he put it when interviewed in Socialist Worker, ‘is always the last place to get the message. But at the bottom, that’s where radicalisation matters.’ [54] A similar sort of denial comes from Militant.

To test the truth of this, let us examine the witch hunt against Militant supporters as a test of the mood inside the Labour Party. For Tony Benn, as for Militant, the witch hunt is a measure of the weakness of the right: ‘I think the witch hunt is an indication of the strength of the left and not its weakness. You don’t have to witch hunt against a powerless little group of people.’ [55]

If Benn is right then clearly he has a powerful argument against those who claim that the vacillations and treacheries of the leadership prove that the Labour Party is unwinnable for socialism. If the party is basically on a left-wing course, despite what happens at the top, then there is no point in leaving.

But is Benn right? First of all, we have to understand that the present witch hunt is not like the witch hunt of 1981. Attempts by leading NEC right-wingers, Ken Cure, of the AUEW, and Charles Turnock, of the NUR, to repeat the same procedure have failed.

As Chairman of the Appeals Committee, Cure presented the NEC with a document on the ‘principles of democratic socialism’, which attacked the domination of the Labour Party by those whose educational advantages allowed them to manipulate the rules to their advantage. These people, the document claimed, had used their positions to criticise long-standing and valued members of the party, active, for example, in local government, and had led to the alienation of working-class members of the party and to Labour’s electoral decline. In particular, the document singled out Militant as the chief culprit in twisting the rules. [56]

What Cure was after, with this piece of red-baiting based on a spurious appeal to the working class, was a concerted, centralised offensive against the left of the type that a few years earlier had led to the arraigning of the editorial board of Militant and their subsequent expulsion from the party. In this he was stopped by leading soft left members of the NEC, who successfully led a move to exclude specific mention of Militant in connection with membership of the Labour Party, a move welcomed by Kinnock. Although predictably the Tory press claimed that this was yet another example of Labour’s capitulation to extremism, the reality, sadly, is rather different.

There is no doubt a witch hunt. There have been a significant number of expulsions – in Wales, the North East, the West Midlands and Nottinghamshire. There is also pressure on Militant supporters to stop selling their paper on pain of expulsion. And within NUPE and the TGWU strong currents to marginalise the influence of Militant exist (the influence is limited in any case). But this has not been a witch hunt initiated from the top. The soft left opposed Cure because they realised that a witch hunt on his terms be counterproductive.

The feeling is much more to let Militant invite expulsion by its own behaviour as the mood in the party develops that those who rock the boat get what they deserve. Thus the soft left can keep its conscience clean while doing nothing to oppose the anti-Militant mood. For example, Tribune printed a long article from the Isle of Wight Constituency Labour Party on why they had stopped sales of Militant their meetings. They claimed that Militant disrupted the work of the party by refusing to act under its discipline and so were responsible for the disunity that led to the disastrous drop in the vote on the Isle of Wight in 1983. The article concluded:

If tendency members ARE expelled here, it will be because they courted it and ignored the feelings of ordinary party members who have nothing in common with them.

We say to party members elsewhere, do not judge our actions as ‘witch hunting until you have had to live with a party totally dominated and controlled by a narrow, rigid faction whose aims and methods have nothing in common with the Labour Party, or with democracy, and whose tactics and slogans have progressively destroyed the Labour vote on the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight Labour Party is determined to improve its electoral standing, whatever the cost may be. We have come to the conclusion here that we cannot even begin to make a start on that while we are saddled by the encumbrancy of the Militant Tendency, its pathetic ‘newspaper’, and its self-serving, self-pitying disciples. [57]

It is quite possible that this picture of the feeling in the Isle of Wight party is a total slander, though no rebuttal has been forthcoming. It is therefore more than likely that the unpopularity of Militant is widespread: it represents the unpopularity of hard socialist ideas in the face of the pressures of electoralism.

Tribune’s response is unpleasant but revealing:

The statement from the Isle of Wight Constituency Labour party printed on this page contains a powerful message for the party’s right wing: that Militant is a parasite which, if left alone, will wither, but if it is attacked, it will thrive and prosper.

While the Right on Labour’s National Executive Committee were witch-hunting Militant from pillar to post, the group increased its membership and grew in influence.

Furthermore, while it was under attack, the democratic Left was forced into the position of having to defend Militant, despite its profound distaste for its policies and methods of working.

In recent months, Neil Kinnock has persuaded the Right to leave Militant alone. As a result, the real political differences which exist between the tendency and the rest of the Left have been allowed to emerge.

Had the Right’s witch-hunt still been in full swing, none of this would have happened and Militant would probably have succeeded in seeing several of its members selected as parliamentary candidates by now. The lesson could not be clearer. All witch-hunters please note. [58]

In other words what we have here is a sober recognition that much the easiest way to ditch Militant is to use the feeling inside local parties rather than diktats from Walworth Road. This also means that one can, in a formal sense, be opposed to witch hunts – or even deny, as Peter Hain does, that they exist. [59]

This ‘popular’ drive to marginalise Militant (horrible though it is) belies the idea that a hard left current is on the offensive in the Labour Party. No doubt Militant continues to draw support from those who refuse to follow the drift rightwards of what Militant calls the trendy left. At the same time the ‘trendy’ left is clearly under no pressure from the hard left. Indeed, the evidence is rather that Militant is making concessions to the weight of feeling which Tribune has commented on. Take, for example, Militant’s model resolution against the witch hunt:

This CLP/organisation recognises that party unity around socialist policies is an essential condition for the defeat of the Thatcher government.

The witch-hunts and expulsions over the last six months have damaged the party and played directly into the hands of the capitalist press. Such attacks before the 1983 general election were a key factor in Labour’s defeat.

Unfortunately these attacks arise from an attempt by some sections of the party to create a smokescreen in order to abandon socialist measures and return to the failed and discredited policies of the past.

We therefore call on the NEC to maintain the Party’s commitment to socialist policies. The road of witch-hunts and expulsions on which they are proceeding will meet the whole-hearted resistance of the rank and file. We warn those leaders who condone these attacks that they will be held responsible for splitting the Party in the face of the enemy. All attacks, ‘purges’ and expulsions should be dropped by the NEC and the misnamed Appeals and Mediation Committee, which has undemocratically initiated countless ‘disciplinary enquiries’, should be abandoned.

Only if this is done can the ranks of the Labour movement be pulled together to campaign effectively against the Tory enemy and prepare the way for a Labour Government committed to socialist principles. [60]

The appeal to unity sounds fine and one likely to strike a chord with many Labour Party activists. But it ducks a crucial question. If ‘some sections of the party’ are using the witch hunt ‘in order to abandon socialist policies’, surely their continued existence in the Labour Party constitutes a hindrance to getting ‘socialist policies’ implemented by the next Labour government. In other words, shouldn’t they be expelled?

Now, if the witch hunt of socialists was a desperate rearguard action by the right in the face of the growing strength of the hard left in the party, Militant would not have to resort to pleading to be left alone as a quid pro quo for not attacking the right head on. The fact that Militant refuses rather coyly to specify who these sections are (do they include Kinnock, who is certainly responsible for abandoning socialist policies?) is proof of their lack of support and the need to retreat.

Similarly, Benn’s claim that hard left ideas are popular at the base of the party is undermined by his recognition that the party does not want ‘a challenge to the leadership’. [61] Perhaps Benn did not perceive the implications of this admission. If the party does not want to challenge the leadership, that means it accepts that those now articulating and promoting ‘anti-socialist’ policies, i.e. Kinnock and the Shadow Cabinet, should be trusted. That is no testimony to left-wing strength. It is rather a vote of confidence in those opposed in what Benn stands for.

If we wanted further proof of the mood in the Labour Party we need look no further than what has happened over reselection. If, as Tribune observed, there is no sign of a political shift among the marginal seats, one can only conclude that, despite the superiority of the new selection procedures (it is claimed they favour the hard left, who initiated them), other aspirations have taken priority. These aspirations reflect the need to build maximum electoral support in the next two to three years. The soft left embodies these aspirations perfectly.

On the one hand, there is the deep desire on the part of Labour Party activists to avoid the tarnished image of the traditional right-wing leadership, discredited by the experience of the 1974 to 1979 government. If the initiative is to be recaptured from the Tories, then a campaigning, radical image is an absolute necessity. On the other hand, it must be an image that appears credible, not one that appears unrealistic. In that respect, the soft left’s perception of the rate-capping campaign is revealing. What came to dominate (as victory over the government slipped out of sight) was the feeling that campaigning against government cuts as an exercise in changing public opinion was more important than victory or defeat. So when Blunkett talked of confrontation over the law as a pointless bid for martyrdom not many on the left felt that to be a betrayal. Equally, Ken Livingstone’s abrupt climbdown, although a shock to some, is unlikely to damage his reputation too much since the alternative to climbing down appeared impossible.

After the long years of Thatcherism, and the sobering effects of two lost elections, it is the soft left option, pragmatic and un-doctrinaire, that is winning the ranks of the activists – not the ‘sectarian’ hard left. The hard left’s argument that their views reflect that real state of opinion in the party does not stand up to scrutiny. The fact that the marginalisation of Militant requires no formal directive from Walworth Road and the fact that reselection shows no strengthening of the hard left’s position testify to the unpalatable reality that the kind of socialist ideas promoted in the party only a little while ago are now unpopular.

The fundamental split in the Labour Party is between those both at the top and at the grassroots who want the party to win at the polls first and foremost and those (a much smaller group) who assert that policy takes priority. Because the Labour Party is electoralist the advantage lies with the former. They put pressure on the latter to adapt to the prevailing ethos of unity, on the grounds that no member of the Labour Party could refuse to cooperate with the right for electoral victory just because correct policy is the priority. The spoken or unspoken accusation of treachery keeps the hard left in line at all levels of the party, the bottom as well as the top.

Unity is a splendid principle when it comes to working-class self-activity; it is a deadly trap when it conceals differences of principle in a reformist party. The dominance of the right and the soft left is not due to their skilful manoeuvrings, but sadly to the fact that most of those belonging to the Labour Party genuinely believe in the Labour Party and are hostile to persistent critics, not just of its leaders and policies but of its methods, however correct these criticisms are. The urge to bury differences on the grounds that we are all united in the Labour Party against the Tory enemy is a deeply rooted one.

This is not a counsel of despair or an argument for ignoring the Labour Party. It is rather to say that the key to winning the minority of socialists in the Labour Party away from reformism lies in convincing them that it is the struggle that takes place outside the arena of electoralism, in the workplace, that counts. Where workers gain the confidence to fight for themselves, there is socialist advance resumed.

Revolutionaries and the Labour Party

Are there any exceptions? Have socialists in the Labour Party who call themselves Marxists (unlike the Bennite hard left) held out against the accommodation to the right? Militant would answer yes.

Militant have good reason for calling themselves revolutionary rather than reformist. In all respects, except their adherence to the Labour Party, their programme and politics belong to the Trotskyist tradition. The fact that they have created a large (by revolutionary standards) and influential network of supporters who are well organised inside the Labour Party seems to suggest that, contrary to the argument running through this article, it is possible to survive unscathed inside a reformist party. Indeed, Militant would claim there are positive advantages to remaining within the Labour Party, for, as the left reformists make their peace with the right, only Militant remains to act as a pole of attraction to genuine socialists inside the party disgusted by the antics of the soft left. The socialist ‘sects’ outside the Labour Party debar themselves, it is claimed, from the opportunity.

We have already seen, over the question of the witch hunt, that there is good reason for believing that Militant has made concessions to the prevailing mood of unity. But it could be argued that those were purely tactical concessions. Unfortunately, it is clear that Militant have paid a price for their determination to remain inside the Labour Party, the price being major theoretical concessions which tend to cancel out any advantage they claim accrues from operating inside a reformist organisation. Of course, for reformists considerations of this sort are irrelevant (by definition, reformists believe in the parliamentary road, the conversion of the existing state machine to socialist purposes, etc.); for revolutionaries the case is different.

Ever since Lenin’s time, no one with revolutionary pretensions has believed that social-democratic or labour parties can bring about socialism. Instead, communist parties which reject electoralism and parliamentary cretinism are required. For revolutionaries to adhere to the Labour Party therefore seems contradictory. What justification would there be in the Leninist tradition? If pressed, Militant point to Lenin’s advocacy of affiliation to the Labour Party by the infant British Communist Party in 1920, especially as Lenin attacked those who were against affiliation as ultra-left abstentionists.

Yet Lenin’s case is less straightforward than appears at first glance. Lenin’s starting point is an attack on the view that the Labour Party is ‘the political expression of the workers organised in trade unions’:

I have met the same view several Times in the paper of the British Socialist Party [the BSP fused with other groups to form the Communist Party, but was already affiliated to the Labour Party]. It is erroneous, and is partly the cause of the opposition, fully justified in some measure, coming from the British revolutionary workers. Indeed, the concepts ‘political department of the trade unions’ or ‘political expression of the trade union movement, are erroneous. Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are working men. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers ... [62]

Nothing has changed since Lenin’s time to modify this definition. The experience of Labour in power has merely confirmed what a thoroughly bourgeois party it is.

Why should Lenin have been so insistent on the point that the Labour Party is not the political expression of the trade unions? Maybe he was concerned about the implications of such a view for the tactic of affiliation. Fudging the nature of the Labour Party might shift the purpose of affiliation from that of seeking to build an open and independent revolutionary organisation outside the Labour Party to one of attempting to convert the Labour Party into being the true political expression of the workers. Manifestly this was out of the question; otherwise Lenin would have suggested dissolving the Communist Party into the Labour Party.

Affiliation for Lenin only made sense under the unique conditions of the British Labour Party – complete freedom to criticise the leadership. The implication of the tactic was that, faced with a choice between retaining affiliation at the price of losing that complete freedom to criticise and expulsion, the Communist Party (so Lenin maintained over and over again) should welcome expulsion: ‘that will have an excellent effect upon the mass of the British workers’, [63] ‘that will be a great victory for the communist and revolutionary working class movement in Britain.’ [64]

Because Lenin was concerned about the ultra-leftism of the best elements of the British Communist Party, he quite correctly attacked their rejection of affiliation as part of their infantile disorder of left-wing communism. By 1920 the international revolutionary tide was ebbing fast. Revolution and soviet power was no longer on the immediate agenda in Britain. The Labour Party had to be urged into office so that the experience of Labour in power could cure workers of their illusions in reformism. Standing on the sidelines, indifferent to the opportunities offered by bourgeois democracy or ignoring the Labour Party, the Communist Party would be deprived of any significant growth.

But just because Lenin bent the stick away from ultra-leftism he did not mince matters on the dangers of its opposite, opportunism. Hence his disagreement with the BSP’s view of the Labour Party; hence his total agreement with the one theoretical point on which Gallacher, the leading British ‘ultra-left’, was correct:

[he] fully realises that only workers’ Soviets, not parliament, can be the instrument enabling the proletariat to achieve its aims; those who have failed to understand this are, of course, out-and-out reactionaries, even if they are most highly educated people, most experienced politicians, most sincere socialists, most erudite Marxists, and most honest citizens and fathers of families. [65]

How does Militant measure up to the arguments Lenin used in connection with the tactic of affiliation? The answer is, not very well. For example, in Peter Taaffe’s long and authoritative article Marxism and the State [66], one will search in vain for any assertion that ‘only workers’ Soviets, not parliament can be the instrument enabling the proletariat to achieve its aims.’ Taaffe ably defends Marxists against the hypocritical bourgeois accusation that we are against democracy or rejoice in violence:

In supporting and defending ‘democracy’, the Marxists reject the hypo-critical idea of ‘democracy’ propounded by the spokesmen of capitalism. Democracy is not just a ‘nice idea’. Capitalist democracy is distinguished from other forms of rule by the bourgeoisie by the rights which the working class have conquered for itself: the right to strike; freedom of assembly and the press; the right to form political parties, cultural and sports associations; and of course the right to vote. These are the elements of the new society – that is, of a democratic workers’ state – which are maturing in the womb of the outmoded and decaying capitalist society. By using these rights effectively, the working class can strengthen itself, extend its power and organisations. This in turn can prepare the way for compelling capitalism to vacate the stage of history for a new socialist society. Rather than threatening democratic rights, Marxism advocates the retention and enormous extension of these rights as a pre-condition for the movement towards socialism. [67]

There is a telling elision in the argument. Of course revolutionaries welcome the relative freedoms of capitalist democracy and want them extended. But unless workers abolish the old state (including even its most ‘democratic’ – or rather, least authoritarian – element, parliament) and replace it by their own forms of democratic control, workers’ councils, then none of our current liberties, let alone socialist advance, can be guaranteed. On this point – the crucial lesson of the Bolshevik Revolution – Taaffe is silent. [68]

However, something has to be the agency of change:

Violence and civil war are as welcome to Marxists as the plague. Our policies, if taken up and implemented by the labour movement, could precisely avoid this catastrophe. We have proclaimed hundreds if not thousands of times that we believe that, armed with a clear programme and perspective, the labour movement could effect a peaceful socialist transformation. [69]

So what is the instrument of the labour movement?

In their desperate attempt to cast the left, and particularly the Marxists, in the role of ‘Totalitarians’, the bourgeoisie have continually sought to present us as ‘anti-parliamentarian’. However, in the pages of Militant, in pamphlets, and in speeches, we have shown that the struggle to establish a socialist Britain can be carried through in Parliament, backed up by the colossal power of the labour movement outside. This, however, will only be possible on one condition: that the trade unions and the Labour Party are won to a clear Marxist programme and perspective, and the full power of the movement is used to effect the rapid and complete socialist transformation of society. [70]

It is difficult to see in this anything other than a massive concession to the reformist idea that there is a parliamentary road to socialism. The most charitable construction that could be put on Taaffe’s argument is that he means something else. What he is really saying is that what counts is the long-term aim of winning the workers’ movement to Marxist ideas. In the meantime we should try the parliamentary road by electing Labour governments. Since, by definition, they lack Marxist ideas and leadership, they will fail to deliver the goods. That will have an educative effect on the workers’ movement, increasingly revolutionising it and directing it to the theoretical embodiment of revolutionary aspirations, that is, Marxism.

With this interpretation, give or take a few nuances, socialists inside the Labour Party would not disagree: while millions of workers place their faith in the Labour Party we have to travel that with them to prove in practice what revolutionary socialists say in theory, namely that socialism cannot come via parliament.

But to put such a construction on Taaffe’s argument is simply not tenable. For Taaffe goes on to elaborate in rather more specific detail what this combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity amounts to:

It is for this reason that Militant, in opposition to the programme of piecemeal reforms of the supporters of the Alternative Economic Strategy, have demanded that a Labour government introduce enabling legislation into the House of Commons to nationalise the 200 monopolies, with minimum compensation on the basis of proven need. Should the movement be restricted to Parliamentary struggle, as the right-wing have argued in the past? The rank and file of the labour movement has never evinced a tendency towards what Marx called ‘parliamentary cretinism’ THE STRUGGLE TO ENHANCE THE POSITION OF LABOUR IN PARLIAMENT HAS ALWAYS BEEN SUPPLEMENTED BY THE STRUGGLE OUTSIDE PARLIAMENT, both of the trade unions and of the Labour Party. [71]

It is simply not possible to argue that there is any fundamental difference here between a reformist view of extra-parliamentary activity and Militant’s. The key phrase is the one stressed above. Surely that puts the relationship between parliament and the struggle outside the wrong way round. The SWP, ‘a tiny ultra-left sect’, most assuredly does not suffer from ‘anti-parliamentarianism’ (in the positive sense); it would dearly love to have as many MPs in the Commons as Militant (if not more). But their purpose would be to enhance the position of working-class struggles outside parliament. Parliamentary ‘struggle’ would be subordinated to real struggle, not implemented (?!) by it’. [72]

Taaffe’s formulation recalls not the Leninist tradition but the centrist, Kautskyan tradition against which both Lenin and Trotsky fought so bitterly, though, to be fair, Taaffe has not gone as far as actually saying that: ‘the direct action of the unions can operate effectively only as an auxiliary and reinforcement to, and not as substitute for parliamentary action.’ [73]

The demand for enabling legislation recalls Cripps’ very similar demand in the 30s – indeed, Taaffe refers to it approvingly. Unless one really believes in the parliamentary road, such demands are unnecessary. It is one thing to call on a Labour government to nationalise large chunks of British industry – at a pinch, that could be justified as a propaganda designed to ‘expose’ Labour. But it is quite another to give chapter and verse about not only how many monopolies a future Labour government should nationalise but also what kind of compensation should be paid out. This is definitely to preach that parliamentary methods are the way forward. Whatever their intentions, the effect of Militant’s view of the transition to socialism is to reinforce reformist illusions.

However, despite these dubious departures from the revolutionary tradition, the consequences of their theory of the transition to socialism are likely to remain untested (unless one counts Liverpool Council) – their exclusion from crucial positions of responsibility in the Labour Party guarantees that. So Militant guards a certain flexibility. For many of their supporters the reformist implications are not clear; they remain convinced revolutionaries (and the Militant newspaper certainly preaches class struggle) who perceive no contradiction between their aspirations and the reality of working within the Labour Party.

However, that state of affairs cannot last indefinitely, and unless they are persuaded that there is a socialist alternative outside the Labour Party the sad consequence will be that either they move to the right as the supposed necessity of remaining in the Labour Party forces them to tone down their politics or they will be lost to Marxism altogether.

The problem is precisely the supposed necessity of remaining in the Labour Party. Militant gives no conditions of the sort spelled out by Lenin for leaving the Labour Party. At least, in public they do not. It may be that privately Militant retains something of Trotsky’s view that revolutionaries only go into a reformist party (in the last resort, as it were), to pull leftward moving workers out of it in order to construct an independent revolutionary socialist alternative. [74] How to pull out of a reformist party was for Trotsky part and parcel of how one went in. No such discussion is ever voiced in public by Militant, even guardedly.

This is doubly dangerous, first, because the longer revolutionaries remain in the Labour Party the more comfortable they grow within it (they start making concessions of the type we have already examined); and secondly, because if there really is an intention to leave the Labour Party the more difficult it becomes to pull any class-conscious workers with one, expectations having been build up that the Labour Party can be transformed into an instrument of socialist change.

If anything, Militant offers a justification for remaining inside the Labour Party whatever happens and in all circumstances. The justification hinges on the argument that because the Labour Party is the historic party of the working class (we have already seen what Lenin thought of that argument) workers will inevitably turn to it in a crisis. Whether right or left are in the ascendancy, revolutionaries have to hang on, come what may, waiting their turn.

The argument is misleading, and the conclusion does not follow. It is true, however, in this sense: very large numbers of workers identify with the Labour Party (largely in a voting capacity) as a party that either offers a better deal than the openly capitalist parties or is seen as corresponding to their interests as opposed to those of the bosses. It is also true that discontent feeds Labour’s popularity (though as Mitterrand’s France is currently proving, discontent can also feed right-wing and extreme-right parties).

But what does it mean to say that workers ‘look’ to the Labour Party? Because the dominant ideas in society are the ideas of the dominant class, revolutionary consciousness is restricted to a few workers. Reformism, on the other hand, because it fits workers’ day-to-day experience, is bound to prevail among broad layers of workers, and in so far as the Labour Party is the organised expression of reformism (with trade union leaders being the managers of discontent), so too will the Labour Party.

That workers break with openly capitalist ideas can only be welcomed (better a Mirror than a Sun reader); but it does not follow that workers identifying with reformist politics are in only the first phase of an automatic, inevitable transition to revolutionary politics. The reasons for identifying with the Labour Party can be to do with loss of confidence in self-activity as well as gain. There was a substantial swing to the Labour Party after the 1926 General Strike; but that represented a retreat into trust in parliamentary methods, direct action having apparently failed. Almost certainly, the revival of Labour’s electoral fortunes since the end of the miners’ strike shows similar complexity. Increased anti-Tory feeling is combined with a wariness about the virtues of industrial action. The miners’ strike proved to many that the Tories could be taken on and rattled; but the miners’ defeat reinforced the reformist illusion that the only way of crushing the Tories is at the ballot box.

Whether workers break from reformism to the left depends on there being a credible alternative to Labour. That used to be the Communist Party. But their politics were as rotten as reformist (and disastrous) for the socialists who looked to them as the Labour Party’s. One of the alternatives today is Militant. But by refusing to break with Labour, despite its evident drift to the right, Militant will channel disillusion back into the false expectation that a transformed Labour Party will bring about real socialism. If Militant are not prepared to risk war against Kinnock now, for fear of the consequences, it is difficult to imagine they will be in any better position to do so when Kinnock is actually in power.

If, however, Militant were prepared to join forces with other socialists outside the Labour Party, then a small, but credible socialist alternative could be created. In view of the demoralisation that will follow the anti-working class measures of the next Labour government, building that alternative is vital.


The evidence points to the gloomy fact that the next Labour government will be worse than the last. This has little to do with the subjective intentions of the participants or the quality of manifesto promises. Wedded to managing the system, Labour can only deliver reforms the system is prepared to tolerate. As the world economic crisis continues, the toleration of the crisis grows less. If the Tories are unable to help the system out of crisis, then Labour certainly won’t be able to.

In one unfortunate respect, however, Labour governments do have an advantage over Tory governments: they can use the trust of their supporters to press through anti-working class measures that Tory governments may not be able to as being too nakedly in the class interest of the bosses. Such, for example, is the reality of the Mitterrand government, which managed last year to make hourly wage rates rise more slowly than the rate of inflation – the first time since 1958, i.e. since De Gaulle seized power, and twenty-three years of right-wing rule followed. [75] Such, too, was the reality of the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974 to 1979, which, despite the most radical manifesto the Labour Party has ever produced (it promised a ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’) [76] presided over massive cuts in workers’ living standards. ‘Planning for wages’ under Kinnock can only be a continuation of what Thatcher has attempted (but failed) to do: cut workers’ wages sufficiently to restore capitalist profitability.

It would be nice to exempt those on the left of the Labour Party who have protested against every retreat by the leadership from complicity in this sad tale of betrayal. But it is not possible. Every left wing, whether or not some of its supporters succumb to the temptations of office and move to the right, tends by virtue of remaining in the Labour Party to give credibility to the idea that at some unspecified point in the future the Labour Party can be different. Since the party’s essentially electoralist nature dictates otherwise, the Labour left willy-nilly prepares for fresh defeats. The current Labour left will not escape the fate of its predecessors however much it thinks it can.

It is useless to repeat that a fully democratic constitution or the adoption of a proper Marxist programme would mark a fundamental break between the past of the Labour Party and its future (as Benn in the first instance and Militant in the second claim). The problem is the Labour Party itself. Clause Four has remained a dead letter; so will any other socialist nostrum.

Try as the Labour left might – by appeals to extra-parliamentary activity – they cannot avoid the fact that electoralism (which is the heart and soul of the Labour Party) constrains all who work in and for it to a strategy that places the cause of socialism in alien territory: the bourgeois institution of parliament. Once there it is subject to much more powerful forces than they, as believers in the parliamentary road, can muster in defence. And the tragedy is that the more far-sighted on the Labour left know it.

Yet they persist in demanding of all those whom they influence that they ‘strengthen’ the Labour Party – the very organisation that proves so deadly to workers’ socialist aspirations whatever the motives and intentions of its adherents.

But what’s the alternative to ‘strengthening’ the Labour Party, the Labour left ask? The alternative – outside the Labour Party – looks bleak; the politics of revolution, shrill and unrealistic. Yet if, us we have demonstrated, the fate of the Labour left is always either to be towed behind the right – sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly – or (in a few honourable exceptions) to retain a principled but powerless position, what advantage is there in remaining in the Labour Party?

If the left devoted its energies to building a socialist alternative to the Labour Party, one in which activists did not have to defend themselves constantly against the machinations of the right, did not get bogged down in manoeuvrings and resolution mongering, and just as importantly – were able to say openly and honestly that there is no parliamentary road to socialism, would not that strengthen socialist opposition to the kind of measures that Kinnock and co will direct against workers?

Otherwise the same scenario will be played out as in the 1974 to 1979 government. The watchword will be moderation, especially if the majority is small (or even, as it was in early 1974, non-existent). Measures directed at unemployment, welfare, education and so on will be moderate; wage demands will be kept moderate by trade union leaders, mindful of their responsibilities to ‘their’ government. Most of the Labour left will be persuaded to go along with this on the grounds that now is not the time to rock the boat (it never is).

Like the last Labour government, life will only get worse. As business is reassured by the moderation of Kinnock (and there are no wild flings at unilateralism), and the government’s determination as well as ability to resist pressure from below becomes clear, capital will resume its encroachments on labour. The Labour left, having already tolerated moderation, will be in no position to turn round and offer collective defiance. Some individuals will say enough is enough but their relative isolation will be sufficient to marginalise the impact of their protest.

The supposed superiority of being a socialist inside the Labour Party comes with a self-inflicted handicap that does not exist for those outside. The possibilities of activity on a clear and principled basis to fight Kinnock’s policies are that much sharper.

But, the Labour left will invariably add, will they be any more effective in view of the modest size of the forces outside the Labour Party? We, for our part, lay no great claim as to the nature of our influence and do not strut about in the caricature of Leninism, or vanguardism, that some on the Labour left sneer at. True, our aim is to build a revolutionary party based on uniting all those who want to fight capitalism and who recognise that the fight for socialism has very little to do with what goes on in parliament and everything to do with how workers go about their daily, humdrum battles against the boss and the bureaucrat at work. Not for one moment do we suppose that that is an easy task or that it can be done by incantation of Marxist rote.

To be a revolutionary is not to proclaim the revolutionary party as having been already built. A party with deep roots in every workplace and commanding a sizeable if minority influence is still a long way off. Nor does being a revolutionary mean declaring that the revolution will take place at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning.

But it does mean being clear about certain things, even at the apparent expense of foregoing the large audience available to socialists inside the Labour Party; and that is being clear about the fact that the Labour Party, whatever the intentions of sincere socialists inside it, is not marching towards the same goal as ourselves, while taking a better, broader and easier route – it is marching in the opposite direction altogether, away from socialism.

In any case, it is not true that socialists outside the Labour Party are deprived of an audience – or rather, it depends on how that audience is defined. If it is as Labour voters, then clearly to be inside the Labour Party makes sense. But we are entitled to ask, does not that bring us back to the old question of whether the key to socialism lies in voting, a question that can only be answered in the negative?

If on the other hand the audience is seen as workers who vote Labour, then the picture alters radically. However we define workers, their day-to-day economic activity is far more important than their occasional voting preference, though clearly that colours their thoughts and activity. But in their day-to-day economic activity, they find themselves in conflict with their bosses, testing their strength, winning battles (and often losing them), seeing what effect trade union and Labour leaders have on their expectations. Of that audience, socialists outside the Labour Party are not at all deprived.

Indeed, socialists outside the Labour Party are not tempted consciously or unconsciously to downgrade as extra-parliamentary the experience workers gain of their own strength, as if somehow it is the shadow to the real substance of parliamentary progress. The argument may be harder because the dominant generalisation by workers has been to rely on electing a Labour government.

Nevertheless it must be made. Dependence on Labour can only prove disastrous in the long run, and if the discontent that accumulates in consequence of every anti-working class measure Labour confusingly pushes as socialist is not totally to be captured by the right, then an alternative that does not subordinate a fightback against Labour to electoral calculations is vital. Not that a socialist alternative will be able to reverse the trend of Kinnockism, but it will at least be able, in its small beginnings, to prepare the ground for replacing Labourism with real socialism in the long run.


1. Quoted in Pete Goodwin, Is there a future for the Labour left? (London 1983), p. 12.

2. Ibid., p. 14.

3. Ibid., p. 16.

4. Tribune, 4 January 1985.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Tribune, 24 May 1985.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. New Socialist, May 1985.

14. Guardian, 28 March 1985. This point is also made in Seyd’s article.

15. Guardian, 8 January 1985.

16. New Socialist, May 1985.

17. Ibid.

18. Guardian, 3 August 1984.

19. See the paper presented by Benn and Heffer to the National Executive Committee and reproduced in Tribune, 31 May 1985. The relevant section goes as follows: ‘... a new campaign strategy, including some NEC, PLP and trade union members has been set up, from which other NEC members are excluded ... This committee has established its own sub-committees, still further distancing the NEC itself from real power.’ (My italics) Benn and Heffer then catalogue the extensive changes in party policy in economic strategy, attitude towards the Common Market and defence. None of this is surprising. What is revealing is the admission (a rather understated one) that the NEC has no real control over the leadership, the reason for which remains unexplored by the authors of the paper.

20. Times, 1 November 1984.

21. Guardian, 26 July 1985. The concessions the Campaign group is prepared to make is illustrated by the following. In January, when Roland Boyes refused to join in Campaign’s disruption in parliament in order to acquire debating time on the miners’ strike, Martin Flannery could think of no bigger insult than to say, ‘You’re nothing but a Tribunite’ (quoted in the Guardian, 23 January 1985). Yet Campaign insists on putting forward Tam Dalyell’s name for the joint slate, presumably because his persistence in exposing the government’s lies about the sinking of the Belgrano has resulted in deserved popularity. However, Dalyell is also on record (Guardian, 14 July 1984) as saying, à propos of the takeover of the Mirror, that Robert Maxwell was a ‘“remarkable and radical man” unjustly ignored by Harold Wilson. “He would have been a damn sight better at running the economy than Roy Jenkins.”’

22. Times, 16 March 1983. Adam Raphael made a similar prediction about the choice of candidates fighting marginal seats (Observer, 25 November 1984).

23. Guardian, 10 December 1984.

24. Tribune, 28 June 1985.

25. However, there is evidence that Militant itself is not above some dubious voting behaviour. Tribune (21 June 1985) reported accusations that at the Pollok selection meeting Militant supporters used their votes to eliminate the soft left-winger during a tie-breaker after the first round.

26. Tribune, 29 March 1985.

27. Guardian, 25 June 1985.

28. Quoted in the Guardian, 25 June 1985.

29. Guardian, 1 July 1985.

30. Ibid.

31. Quoted in the Guardian, 25 June 1985.

32. Guardian, 11 July 1985.

33. Times, 28 January 1985.

34. Both END and Tribune quoted in the Guardian, 21 June 1985.

35. Quoted in the Observer, 20 January 1985.

36. Kinnock told the COHSE conference (Guardian, 18 June 1985) that no miracle cures could be guaranteed for the NHS.

37. The phrase is Benn’s.

38. Tribune, 19 July 1985.

39. Paul Foot, The Politics of Harold Wilson (Harmondsworth 1968), pp. 90–94.

40. Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (London 1972), p. 354.

41. Paul Foot, op. cit., p. 152.

42. Harold Wilson, The New Britain: Labour’s Plan (Harmondsworth 1964), p. 9. Rereading these selected speeches one fails to see how anyone could have been enthused by their banalities and evasions.

43. Miliband, op. cit., p. 355.

44. Quoted in Paul Foot, op. cit., p. 302.

45. Ibid., p. 303.

46. Ibid., p. 306.

47. Ibid., p. 147.

48. Ibid., p. 320.

49. The most prominent of the left MPs determined after his resignation ‘to do nothing that may impair this unity [of the party], weaken the position of the Government in the House of Commons, or handicap the Prime Minister’s exercise of his initiative in determining the date of the General Election’ (quoted in Miliband, op. cit., p. 314). In other words, so mindful were they of Labour’s precarious parliamentary situation that they backed away from a fight with the right.

50. Miliband, op. cit., p. 336.

51. Quoted in Miliband, op. cit., p. 197.

52. Ibid., p. 200.

53. Ibid., pp. 207–208.

54. Socialist Worker, 15 June 1985.

55. Ibid. Militant tries to have it both ways: when their supporters are not being attacked this proves that their arguments are making headway; when they are being attacked, this equally proves the strength of Militant’s ideas!

56. The full text appears in the Times, 1 March 1985.

57. Tribune, 19 July 1985.

58. Ibid.

59. See the interview with him in Socialist Worker, 3 August 1985.

60. Militant, 7 June 1983.

61. Socialist Worker, 15 June 1985.

62. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow 1960–1970), vol. 31, pp. 257–258.

63. Ibid., p. 261.

64. Ibid., p. 263.

65. Ibid., p. 80. This is a quotation from ‘Left-Wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder, a pamphlet often mistakenly used against socialists outside the Labour Party. Militant readers should ponder Lenin’s words very carefully.

66. Militant International Review, June 1982.

67. Ibid., p. 26.

68. No doubt Taaffe would reply that of course he is not opposed to soviets. But how would these forms of workers’ democracy, born of struggle, combine with existing forms of parliamentary ‘democracy’? Which would be legitimate in the event of conflict between the two? The questions are not academic; they were matters of life and death for the German Revolution of 1918 (see Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution – Germany 1918 to 1923 (London 1982).

69. Militant International Review, June 1982, p. 26.

70. Ibid., p. 28.

71. Ibid.

72. As Lenin put it in ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, ‘action by the masses, a big strike, for instance, is more important than parliamentary activity at all times’ (Lenin, op. cit., pp. 60–61).

73. Kautsky, The Road to Power (Chicago 1910), p. 95, quoted in Chris Harman, Party and Class (London), p. 50. Other quotations from Kautsky, giving a Marxist’ justification of parliamentary socialism, can be found in Harman, p. 49.

74. For an extended discussion, see Duncan Hallas, Revolutionaries and the Labour Party, International Socialism 2 : 16, Spring 1982, in particular pp. 12ff.

75. Financial Times, 26 June 1985.

76. Quoted in Henry Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party (London 1982), p. 160.

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