Lessons for today from Fightback!
Fightback! Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s, by Dianne Hayter, tells the story of the ‘stayers’. Of those who remained in the party after the Social Democratic party split of 1981, and with courage and determination won back the levers of power within the Labour party. It explains, with great detail, the myriad groupings, organising with greater and lesser success, to expel Militant, dilute the influence of the left through one member one vote, and make the party electable once more. As the party heads leftwards again, it contains many lessons relevant for today.
The message of the book is an important one. It was not one faction that wrested back control of Labour, and set it on the path to power. Nor was it people organising around a specific policy agenda. It was a broad group, Labour’s mainstream, who organised around a straightforward ideal: that Labour should be a party of government, not a party of protest. In the words of Neil Kinnock, it was people ‘organising in favour of the Labour party’, ‘frustrated’ by its ‘extended weakness’.
The book is a forewarning of the dangers of the party leadership falling out of step with the membership, a clear contributing factor in the election of Jeremy Corbyn. As Hayter writes, ‘When these two elements fall out, much havoc can be wreaked. The Labour party paid a high price for the travails of a disillusioned membership in the late 1970s.’
In the battle with Militant, Labour’s moderates were only able to set the Labour party on a path back to power with the consent of the membership, winning votes and elections from the grassroots up. They had to work hard to bridge the gulf between the parliamentary party and the party membership, and a stronger voice for party members was seen as part of the solution to the problem. By fighting for one member one vote, and by diluting the influence of the organised left in positions of power, Labour’s mainstream felt they would assist the return of moderation.
Today, the dynamic feels different. Corbyn was elected on a surge of support among grassroots members, his reach extending way beyond leftwing organisers in local parties. There is also the additional factor of thousands of registered supporters. This presents a unique organisational challenge, which for moderates involves the creation of a movement much broader than just those who hold office in constituency Labour parties.
Finally, a reread of Fightbank! points up the difference between the union movement 40 years ago and the union movement today. Moderate unions were critical in the fightback in the 1980s, in particular through the ‘St Ermin’s group’. But today the majority of union leaders, with a few notable exceptions, worked hard to facilitate Corbyn’s success.
Trade unions have changed a lot over the decades, and so has their relationship with the party. They have suffered under draconian Tory laws, their membership has dwindled, and they have also changed organisationally. Where Hayter lists multiple union players, today we have only a few super-unions, huge in size.
In his acceptance speech in 1983, Kinnock spoke of unity ‘here and now and from henceforth’. ‘Never again’, he said, will Labour experience a defeat like it did on 9 June 1983. What has happened since is not a comfortable topic for Labour’s mainstream. But, if they want to stage a fightback again, the lesson of this book is that they must do so united, respectful of the party membership and in pursuit of government, refraining from fighting about policy among themselves.
Olivia Bailey is research director at the Fabian Society
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