It has also changed because there are now significant differences between the Party in England and Wales and Scotland, where, as we are all no doubt acutely aware, Scottish Labour, already irrelevant in Westminster, may be on the brink of becoming similarly irrelevant at Holyrood and local elections.
For younger generations whose experience of the Labour Party begins with the Blair/Brown project, the myth of a radical socialist period has much less influence. And it was a myth, although that does not mean that there were not highly significant advances. According to Professor Kevin Jeffries[i]:
“Food subsidies were retained in order to keep down living costs; progressive rates of taxation were kept in place; and regional development was pursued vigorously, so helping to avoid any return to mass unemployment in pre-war industrial blackspots. Several major industries were taken into public ownership.”… (20% of industry) one million new homes were built. Eighty per cent were council houses …But the jewel in Labour's welfare crown was the National Health Service.
More or less all of this progress was ended by the 1947 economic crisis and the introduction of an austerity budget in 1948 by Labour chancellor Sir Stafford Cripps. The nationalisation programme ground to a halt with the exception of steel in 1948. Herbert Morrison, depute Prime minister who oversaw the nationalisation programme famously or perhaps infamously argued there could be no more advances only 'consolidation'. We could go further in a socialist critique of the Attlee government especially of its pro imperialist foreign policy, and secret development of atomic weapons.
If socialist advance in the Party has been limited even in the government most often held up as the pinnacle of progress, does this not reinforce the case made by Ralph Miliband in his book Parliamentary Socialism[ii] where he argues that in Britain the role of Labour leadership has been to maintain the capitalist system by managing discontent. Further the Labour left, despite revolts against the leadership, essentially share the politics of “Labourism”: “an ideology of social reform, within the framework of capitalism, with no serious ambition of transcending that framework”[iii].
As Panitch and Leys point out in their recent book Searching for Socialism[iv], this led Miliband to quite a quite devastating verdict on socialists like us active in the Labour Party. He concluded that “The belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone[v]”.
He believed that that the Labour party acts as a trap for socialist activists. They approach it with a view to changing it and instead find themselves ensnared and ultimately normalised by the experience. I think experience has taught us all the power of the metaphor.
It has to be said, however, that in his last book, Socialism for a Sceptical Age (1994), published after his death Ralph Miliband was a good deal more sympathetic to a process of a radical reform, associated with the socialist left in the Labour Party rather than the strategy of the revolutionary sects outside it, I suspect because by then he had tried to build alternatives to Labour.
To understand why Miliband and many others after him could develop such a jaundiced view of trying to seek socialist advance in the Labour Party, let us consider the period that has such a seminal influence in the nature and purpose of Labour Party left – the struggle for Labour Party democracy through the emergence of what Panitch and Leys call the Labour new left in the late 1970s and 1980s.
The pivotal moment for many on the Left is the much quoted speech by the new leader of the Labour Party James Callaghan who pronounced the death of Keynesianism at the Labour Party Conference in 1976:
“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending, I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.”
This was unquestionably a repudiation of Labour’s 1974 manifesto promise to bring about “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families” and opening the door to the politics of austerity.
Talking privately, James Callaghan before he became leader, explained the realities of party democracy to Tony Benn:
“You can’t write a Manifesto for the Party in opposition and expect it to have any relationship with what the party does in government. We’re now entirely free to do what we like.”
It was therefore obvious to the Labour Left that for any serious social change to take place as a consequence of a Labour party victory it was necessary for the membership to ensure that MPs and the labour Party leadership were accountable to the wishes of party members as expressed in the policy platform agreed at conference and ultimately put before the people for endorsement at elections - and not what the parliamentary elite understood to be what was necessary for good government, especially because ‘good government’ as had been seen in 1947, was more likely to be defined in terms of conservative economic policy and lead to austerity, at least for the poor.
The Labour Left through the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) and a myriad of other left groups with a wide range of political orientations from Communist to Trotskyist turned to a consideration of the party structures and rules in an effort to ensure that the leadership of the party expressed the politics of the party membership and not their own political preferences. Incidentally neither Panitch nor Leys nor the review by Tom Blackburn quite capture how broad the range of left groups was. Off the top of my head it included CLPD, the ILP, Labour Coordinating Committee, Militant, the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory although it has to be said that the length of title of the organisation was often in inverse proportion to the number of members it had.
Although there was disagreement over detail generally the left agreed that there needed to be mandatory reselection of sitting Labour MPs and the right for ordinary party and union members to vote in Labour leadership elections and in this they were successful although it literally took years.
In Panitch and Leys earlier study of the democratising agenda of the Labour left The End of Parliamentary Socialism, they are critical of what they saw an overemphasis by CLPD on process at the expense of politics. In their latest work they are kinder acknowledging that the Labour right’s counter offensive was so intense that there was little time or energy to develop the kind of programme for political education that would have been necessary to bring about a political cultural shift not only to the labour party membership but to the wider communities of discontent that Labour was supposed to engage with.
There is here, however, another problem that the left in the Labour party needs to deal with. The extent to which a coherent political perspective could have emerged from the different strands of socialism that comprised the Labour new left is questionable, even if the mechanisms for attempting such a dialogue could have been agreed. Party democracy at least had the virtue of being a single issue campaign that everyone could get behind.
This requires serious consideration by the Labour left. Momentum sought to address this issue by creating a left organisation that adopted a top down approach enhancing organisational effectiveness that unmanaged disagreement can engender. However it also meant that differences, sometimes profound differences for example on the EU, were never properly discussed with significant consequences for the left project in the Labour party.
Perhaps more urgently we need to consider whether the period we are now in mirrors the 14 years when Labour were out of power that followed the defeat of Michael Foot in 1983. Labour eventually returned to power in 1997 under Tony Blair. The Labour right argue of course that electoral victory in 1997 was only possible because under Neil Kinnock and then New Labour it had expelled Militant, abandoned clause 4 and any radical economic policies, and marginalised the rest of the left.
And certainly some like Alan Johnson have been quick to call for the expulsion of Momentum after the 2019 election defeat by summoning up the 1983 electoral collapse. But the Labour Leadership would be foolish not to notice the differences between the two epochs. In 1983 Labour got 27.6% of the vote – its worst share for 65 years. In 2019 it got 32.2% –more than at the 2010 general election under Brown or in 2015 under Ed Miliband. Furthermore Labour received almost three times as many votes from the under-35s as the Tories.
This surely demonstrates that for all its weaknesses and in particular its failure to fashion a way to retain the support of Labour voters in the so called ‘red wall’ seats and win back ground in Scotland, Corbyn’s Labour had made real progress in building a base for radical politics which in particular socialists in the Party would be well advised to think hard about abandoning Labour, in favour of the blandishments of a new radical party.
Without looking at any of these in detail the failure of the ILP in the 1930s, the Commonwealth Party in the 1940s, Sillars’ Scottish Labour Party in the 1970s, the Scottish Socialist Party and The Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Party in the 1990s, Respect in 2004, and more recently still the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and Left Unity should surely tell us that there is a profound problem in building a new socialist formation of any sort which does not have a mass base, an integral part of which is the Trade Union movement.
Perhaps in a later session we should explore the role of trade unions more thoroughly. For the purposes of this session it is enough to recognise their key limitation is that they largely seek to work within the limits of capitalism and sometimes this has led them to support the Labour right and their key strength is that ultimately they need to articulate demands of the workers they represent and more recently this has favoured the necessity of a Labour Party opposed to neo-liberal austerity to the benefit of the socialist argument inside the Labour Party.
Ultimately the political direction of trade unions depends on pressure from their membership. However unions themselves are badly in need of renewal and democratisation and only by pushing a socialist perspective at every level will it be possible to win them to a socialist as opposed to reformist perspective. That is a significant problem by itself but it is compounded by the need to then encourage Trade Unionists to engage with the Labour Party at its base in order to help enhance working class participation and representation in order to advance socialism.
For me the key weakness of the socialist efforts so far has been the strong emphasis on democratic reform without sufficient effort in transforming the political base of the Labour membership. That is not possible without active political engagement with real participating members.
According to Panitch and Leys in Searching for Socialism:
“Most of the vast increase in membership during the Corbyn years occurred through affiliation at national level rather than through a local constituency party. And very few of the new members, including Momentum activists, attended regular local party meetings.”
If we are to change that we must make participation necessary in order to enjoy the privileges of membership; that is to say you can only vote for candidates and policy positions if you can demonstrate some level of participation in the democratic life of the Party.
Participation will be difficult to define and there are a range of people who cannot participate for legitimate reasons. This needs to be addressed, but if we can achieve it, such participation would provide opportunities for members to consider perspectives other than those offered by the media or indeed a right wing leadership’s messaging. Over time I believe this will produce a much more coherent socialist perspective. This is the kind of base we need to make the Labour Party into an instrument for advancing socialism.
[i] Rebuilding Post-war Britain: Conflicting Views of the Attlee Governments, 1945-51 by Professor Kevin Jeffreys. University of Plymouth New Perspective. Volume 3. Number 3. March 1999
[ii] The End of Parliamentary Socialism From New Left to New Labour by Colin Leys and Leo Panitch
[iv] Searching for Socialism The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn (2020) by Colin Leys and Leo Panitch Verso.
[v] Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour (1964) by Ralph Miliband, Merlin Press