The story of the Labour right

Labour rose

I read with great interest John Carr’s fascinating account of the evolution of one part of the Labour soft left into first Kinnockites and then Blairites, guided by ideologues from the Euro-communist faction around Marxism Today and organised in the Labour Coordinating Committee.

You can read it here:

Part One – Reflections on a Reunion
Part Two – Marxism Today and Labour
Part Three – Modernising Labour

It’s a long read but worth it if you want to understand one of the strands in New Labour’s development.

I owe quite a lot to John Carr. He has probably forgotten this but he sat in as a consultant on a job interview I did, and advised Anita Pollack, then MEP for South-West London, to give me my first job after student politics in 1996. I think my background as national secretary of NOLS (the National Organisation of Labour Students) and on the LCC Executive probably carried some weight with John given the prominence he gives to these two organisations in his potted history.

Ironically it was at about that time that I switched my allegiance from the LCC to Labour First, then, as now, the network for the traditional right of the Labour party. This was largely because John Spellar MP made the effort to reach out and recruit me to a grouping I immediately felt more culturally at home in than the LCC. I wanted to be able to be honest about being a Labour moderate, proud of being from the rightwing of the party, proud of a tradition going back deep into Labour’s history and embracing the legacy of Healey, Gaitskell, Morrison and Bevin, proud of our links to the trade unions, and proud to prioritise one of the issues I care most about, defence, in particular the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent and the North Atlantic alliance. I didn’t want to carry on with what I saw as an intellectual deceit on the part of the LCC: it cheer-led for Blair (as I did) and advocated an extreme variant of modernisation but at the same time tried to define itself as of the Labour left (it self-described even in the mid-1990s as Labour’s ‘Democratic Left’) and despised people like Labour First with a more straightforward and to my mind honest left vs right analysis. I thought it was historically nonsensical to pretend, as the LCC did, that an electable Labour party was invented through a process started by the ‘realignment of the left’ in 1985 (when the soft left stopped working with the Bennite hard left) and completed in a ‘Year Zero’ moment in 1994 when Blair became leader.

This sort of analysis is an attempt to impose one generation’s personal political development onto the history of the political development of an entire political party i.e. ‘Labour became sensible for the first time only when I became sensible for the first time, therefore only those factors that helped me become sensible by wrenching me free from thinking leftist nonsense contributed to this process’.

The reality is somewhat different.

Labour’s history wasn’t all dreadful until Marxism Today begat Tony Blair. Labour was both moderate and electable for long periods of its history. The key figures in and policies of the previous Labour governments deserve celebration. The trade unions have historically been the main force for moderation in the party. The only period when the left really were in the driving seat was in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the soft left LCC was allied with the hard left CLPD (Campaign for Labour Party Democracy) in the Rank and File Mobilising Committee.

So, to the extent they helped turn round and rescue Labour, the LCC were only rescuing it from the utter chaos they had helped create. It’s like vandalising a church, and expecting the congregation to be thankful that after five years you came back and helped repair it.

And while the LCC did play a role in rescuing Labour, they came late to the match having been playing on the other side in the first half. The heavy lifting had already been done by the Old Right around the MPs in Labour Solidarity, the union leaders and political officers in the St Ermins Group and the newsletter ‘Forward Labour’.

John Golding had already restored moderate control of the NEC as early as 1981! Even when the LCC did belatedly switch to fighting against, rather than alongside, the Bennite left, it was, dependent, as John Carr admits, on votes from the Old Right to deliver wins for Kinnock as leader on the NEC and at conference.

Having urged people to read Carr’s pieces I would urge you to read the story of the other half of Labour’s right in two eminently readable books:

Hammer of the Left: Defeating Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and Militant in the Battle for the Labour Party by John Golding

and

Fightback!: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s by Dianne Hayter

These two books tell the story of people who were as loyal to Jim Callaghan as they were to Tony Blair, who stayed on the right of the party when it wasn’t fashionable or a good career move, whose politics was formed by the realities of their lives and their constituents’ and union members’ lives, not by reading Marxism Today or any other theoretical journal, and who didn’t need to go through a convoluted political evolution in the 1980s because they already supported policies that would have made Labour electable from the start.

That’s a tradition I feel is as worthy of celebration as the one Carr writes about.

And I can understand why people who led the fight to keep Labour sane will remark as John Spellar MP, who did play a leading role in that fight, has in the comments under the third part of Carr’s writing:

‘As John Golding’s book makes clear the victories of the Labour right were crucial to securing the policies and personnel for Labour which were vital to winning back Labour voters. This was essential to secure a better society in Britain and a better life for working people. For that we were prepared to put up with the patronising garbage of the sort John Carr regurgitates here. The only useful role played by Marxism Today was it enabled the political butterflies to float away from their left allies while reassuring themselves that they were really still of the left and wouldn’t have to admit that they had been wrong and we were right.

‘However, we could have saved many years in opposition and much destruction of our communities by Thatcher if the ‘soft left’ around the Labour Coordinating Committee had come to their senses and backed moderate policies from the start, rather than gone through a decade long journey of soul searching and faux-intellectual analysis and self-justification, only to end up backing the same policies that more grounded and less pretentious colleagues had known were vote winners in the first place.’

Younger readers will wonder what all this has to do with them.

In a sense they are lucky in that the internal contradictions in the LCC’s positioning have meant it no longer exists: its right became part of Progress and its left showed its true colours by evolving into Compass.

But there is a lesson. The current situation where the whole moderate wing of the Labour party work together to back one set of candidates for party elections like the NEC is infinitely preferable to the scenario where one grouping postured left and worked with the Bennites. People shouldn’t have to choose between Gaitskell’s ‘Fight, fight and fight again’ and Kinnock’s ‘you start with far-fetched resolutions’ as their favourite conference speech – you should be able to celebrate both.

I’m delighted John Carr and a generation like him ended up helping make Labour electable. They are entitled to nostalgia about their youthful dalliances with politics they would probably now find embarrassing. There’s too few of us who actually want an electable Labour party in the here and now to bear grudges. But I do hope subsequent generations of Labour moderate activists will take their historical inspiration from the pages of John Golding and Dianne Hayter’s books, not dusty back issues of Marxism Today or the LCC’s ‘Labour Activist’. Which side would you have been on? Gaitskell or Bevan? Healey or Benn? I know my answer – do you?

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Luke Akehurst is a constituency representative on Labour’s NEC, a councillor in Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here, and blogs here

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  • Hodderbridgedavid

    Interesting that Luke’s question in his conclusion appears to assume that none of his readers are old enough to have actually made the decision to take sides.

  • philipr

    the other book to read is of course John O’farells thinsg can only get better, in which he describes how the in fighting better than anything else.

  • Hodderbridgedavid

    And starts off with the miners marching through the streets of Maidenhead to their local pit….

  • http://twitter.com/jonlansman Jon Lansman

    As a long-standing Bennite and supporter of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, I too have rather more sympathy with Luke’s perspective than John Carr’s (though John is an old comrade). John Spellar’s sneering description of the soft-left’s “decade long journey of soul searching and faux-intellectual analysis and self-justification” isn’t just funny, it’s right. But also, I think Luke’s consistent and unashamed identification with the long-standing right-wing Labour tradition is perfectly reasonable.

    I also think that John Golding and Dianne Hayter’s books are good, if partial, accounts of the period and far more accurate (e.g. on CLPD ) than John Carr’s. I’d add The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour by Leo Panitch, Colin Leys and David Coates, for a left perspective.

    There are, however, two glaring omissions in Luke’s version of history. Firstly, the mass membership have no part in his story of the factions. My contention is that, whilst normally very loyal to their leaders, party members over a long period have tended to side with the Left on most policy issues. And we all want an “electable” Labour Party – we just have different views on what makes us electable. It was Luke’s favoured policies that lost us 5 million votes after 1997, not mine. What is the place of ideas, policies and ideology in all this?

    Two policies always associated with the Bennites of the early 1980s and dismissed as rendering Labour unelectable were opposition to UK membership of what is now called the EU, and unilateral nuclear disarmament. Ironically, Luke’s hero Hugh Gaitskell was always hostile to what became the EU, and his hero Denis Healey eventually decided to oppose Britain retaining a nuclear deterrent. And Luke would probably agree with Marxism Today when it said (in May 1959): “the question is what policy will unite the greatest number of people to get rid of the bomb. Experience has shown that unilateralism only divides the movement and diverts attention from the real issue, namely international agreement to ban nuclear weapons. This is the only way to banish the menace of nuclear war and also the issue on which the greatest number of people agree“. The CP abandoned its support for the workers’ bomb shortly afterwards, and shortly before Labour did. I would suggest that policies and ideas merit more analysis.

    And then, of course, there’s Luke’s deliberate obfuscation: his picture of “the whole moderate wing of the Labour party” working together, as if his beloved Labour First was at one with Progress! The reality is very different: programatically, there are very different strands of the Labour right. Labour First, Labour’s traditional right-wing, belongs entirely within the social democratic tradition. A large part of Progress lies outside it, combining economic liberalism with social conservatism and a hostility to trade unions and the state.

  • Ray Mchale

    Gaitskell or Bevan, Healy or Benn? Only a Tory or a Social Democrat could suggest that there was any question to ask.

  • Ray Mchale

    Gaitskell or Bevan, Healy or Benn? Only a Tory or a Social Democrat could suggest that there was any question to ask.

  • Mary Wimbury

    Luke – an interesting analysis. But I think it also misses that the ‘old right’ also changed in ways which enabled the ‘soft left’ to work with it. Many of us, who came to support Tony Blair, could never have felt culturally or politically at home in the old right. For too long it, at the very least, turned a blind eye to blatant sexism, racism and homophobia and its modus operandi was far from pluralist. Surely what allowed the realignment both you and John are talking about was movement by both sides in a way that allowed individuals from both to work together.

    • http://twitter.com/tommilleruk Tom Miller

      First thing, I agree strongly with your general point. My own view is that I would like to see everyone from the sensible end of the hard left to the soft right of the party in one respectful place. I don’t have much time for the most radical ‘wings’. I also think our current leadership is less polarising, and it would be nice to see some level of defactionalisation and mutual respect, insofar as that is realistic, trickle down from this.

      My own politics is a bit Compassy, more into unions and co-ops, and a bit less into passing catchphrases as theory (as Luke rightly laments with regard to MT above).

      That’s the caveats done.

      Do you really mean a blind eye?

      Worth remembering what happened to Mr Tatchell in Bermondsey. Whatever his politics, the idea that regressive policies are tolerable simply because they are popular or somehow ‘working class’ has proven time after time to be a half-notion.

      The argument that they are always wrong is a strong one, as is the argument that simply allowing them to set a narrative is extremely unambitious and fails to aspire to a change in the national ‘common sense’ (and indeed, what finer example of the attainability of this than on homophobia, where even hardline Tory right-wingers now stand behind a position that Ken Livingstone was practically the only mainstream politician brave enough to make clear)…

      What is annoying for the party centre-left these days is the occasional uncomradliness, anti-pluralism from the top of the party, and the political dearth of balance between power and principle as described in the paragraph above. In short, the tensions over political culture feature more than policy differences.

      The way that I tend to think of factional things is that the general pattern is that the Labour right are elected to carry out policies the left thought of twenty years before. That’s reasonably OK with the soft left.

      It would be nice to see regulating banks, progressive taxation, full gay marriage or not bombing the middle east added to that list at the next election.

      It would also be nice to have outcomes like Australia, where all parliamentary factions have a large personal stake in the wider success of the party itself, for example the long-standing practice of the Shadow Finance Spokesperson and Leader of the Opposition coming from different factions.

      • http://twitter.com/tommilleruk Tom Miller

        I would be happy to challenge a racist on a doorstep, working class, swing voter or otherwise. This is simply the right thing to do.

        Why should I not challenge someone who displays a hatred of the unemployed? Would I be ‘ungrounded’ to do so? Of course not.

        We all know there are racists and those vulnerable to resentment generally in many areas. It is legitimate to choose the path of challenge over the path of ‘adapt’.

        There is simply no point in a ‘social democratic’ party winning elections on a platform of ‘send them all back’, or indeed ‘stop their dole’.

  • Andrew Marshall27

    Great read Luke. Unfortunately few periods of history are quite as unknown and alien as the recent past – I remember getting to know about internal Labour politics through watching Nationwide and other news prongs in the mid 70s
    Andrew

  • paul

    I was with Party colleagues in France when we heard that Healey had beaten Benn by a fraction to take the Deputy leadership. If the opposite had happened it would have begun a short road to political obscurity as Labour’s policies would have become more and more out of touch with the electorate, already suspicious of Labour’s credibility.

  • http://twitter.com/tommilleruk Tom Miller

    Bevan, Silkin.

    Cards, table.

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