The story of the Labour right
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:
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:
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?
CLPD, Denis Healey, Dianne Hayter, Ernest Bevin, Hugh Gaitskell, James Callaghan, John Spellar, Labour, Labour First, Labour history, Labour Students, Luke Akehurst, Margaret Thatcher, Marxism Today, Militant tendency, NEC, Neil Kinnock, New Labour, Tony Benn, Tony Blair, Trade unions