So you’ve decided to become a socialist. What political vehicles exist in Britain today to further this cause? While looking through the list of socialist political parties that are technically in operation in Britain today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were spoilt for choice, and that Britain was home to a vibrant and diverse left-wing political culture. There are a bewildering array of socialist parties in existence in Britain, although no more than a handful have a substantial number of active members, and only the Labour party can claim to be a mass, mainstream political party. How did it get to be this way?
This series of articles seeks to untangle some of the history and political intrigue that has led to the various parties, groups and sects that we are confronted by today. It may seem like frivolous navel-gazing to dedicate so much time to the inner workings of such groups. Some of these small political groupings are of no political significance outside of whichever room they happen to be meeting in. However this is not indulgent history, this back-story has a tangible effect on everything we do on the left, and the success of every political intervention we hope to make in the future will be determined as much by the organizations that carry it out as the beliefs and actions themselves. This article is the second of three parts analysing the history of the Labour party.
The Labour left did not reorganize effectively for a generation, until the late 70′s and the emergence of Tony Benn as a parliamentary figurehead. This was a high water mark of the Labour left, and for a brief point in time the Bennites were the dominant tendency in the party. For any socialist considering a life in Labour, the experience of the Bennites is essential knowledge, and Benn’s diaries are of huge importance. Tony Benn has the privilege of being the only person in British politics who has ever made a real challenge to neo-liberalism in the cabinet.
Following a decade of international recession, triggered partly by the oil shock of 1973, the Labour government appealed to the IMF for a loan to cover its short-term spending gap. In return, the IMF demanded draconian spending cuts, which led to the “winter of discontent.” Sensing the danger, Benn outlined to the cabinet an alternative to accepting the IMF cuts. It remains a sobering piece of history. It shows just what lengths would be necessary to remain even slightly independent of neo-liberal globalization. Benn advocated running the country as a “siege economy” with emergency nationalisation of key industries, the restoration of capital controls and a much greater degree of state control. This ran the risk that capital would flee the country, the pound would be devalued, that Britain would be frozen out of international markets and placed under sanctions. As Benn knew, without international support, such a position was hopeless as it offered economic sovereignty at the expense of basic living standards. For some reason this didn’t appeal to the Labour cabinet, and they instead chose to accept the IMF cuts.
Today we think of Benn in a rather cosy, nostalgic, way. We think of “Wedgie” Benn sat in his rocking chair, smoking his pipe, the saintly old grandfather of the democratic left. He has been rehabilitated by the establishment of the Labour party, now that the danger of his idea’s actually being accepted has passed, as a symbol of something authentic within Labour. He is cynically used by the party to attract the sympathy of left-wingers despite the party’s rejection of everything he stood for. Even Tories feel able to praise him as a benign old sage, salute him for his integrity and honesty, whilst conspicuously ignoring any of his commitment to social justice.
Never forget how Benn was attacked and smeared by both the Labour right and the Tories, more so than any other politician in Britain during the latter part of the 20th century. He was denounced as a traitor, even by people in his own party, for advocating talks with Sinn Fein. He was routinely called a communist, he was denounced by Neil Kinnock for supporting the miners whilst Labour did nothing, and, to top it all off, was accused by a special full-page article in The Sun of being insane. This treatment took place despite the fact that a majority of Labour members and trade unionists supported him and he was likeable enough to evoke a great deal of public sympathy.
The Bennites campaigned openly. There was no secret committee hiding behind a newspaper. They played by the rules and believed in parliamentary politics, and yet it got them nowhere. In 1981 the liberal faction of Labour left the party, citing their opposition to the Bennites as the reason why. The notorious “Gang of Four” who formed the Social Democrat Party were senior members and ex-ministers in the Labour party, worried that their right-wing views would leave them out of favour with a party membership that was firmly on the left. It was a political earthquake, breaking the “Labourist” coalition of liberals and social democrats that the Labour had attempted to hold together since its birth. Their actions split the left vote at the general election and was one of the main causes of the 1983 general election defeat. The brutal truth is that the right of the Labour party would rather bring the temple down on their heads than be subservient to the left.
Since the abolition of the old Clause 4 by Tony Blair, a man once described as “An SDP entryist” by Arthur Scargill, New Labour has surrendered pretty much all its commitments to democratic socialism. The roots of New Labour are in this 1979-83 period of opposition. The 1983 defeat scarred a generation of Labour members, and prompted some on the right of the party to began a fundamental movement to eradicate the left, who they held responsible for this failure, from the Labour party completely. Their aim was to eventually re-unite the party with its traitorous liberal faction. Over many years, under the tutelage of such thinkers as Philip Gould and Anthony Giddens, New Labour became the friendly face of neo-liberalism in the UK, one that capital could use to replace a hated conservative government whilst carrying out very similar policies.
The theoretical basis of New Labour was succinctly made by a Gordon Brown Fabian Society pamphlet called Fair is Efficient: A Socialist Agenda for Fairness. Published in 1994, Brown argued that in modern globalization, capital is mobile whereas the state and labour is relatively immobile. This means that capital can, and will, go to wherever it can make the most profit – what Marxists used to call “the race to the bottom” in their jargon. Attempting to put any sort of limit of capital would just lead to capital strike, whereby capitalists withdraw their money from the country and crush the economy. Any move to even tame capitalism and its fundamental inequalities would lead to economic marginalization and damaging accusations of embracing militant socialism from the press. In this environment, the best Labour could hope to achieve in such a situation would be to accept neo-liberalism, but carry it out in a socially responsible way – as a marriage of economic liberalism and social progressivism.
New Labour based their actions on the underlying notion that Britain would always have a conservative majority, backed up by a hostile right-wing press, and that in order to win power they must reconcile themselves to Tory policies and get in bed with Murdoch. In the political climate of post-Communist 1990′s Europe, the era of the Washington consensus, New Labour decided to discard class-based politics, and replace it with a type of populist identity politics instead. This was the new realism that much of the Labour party bought into, although as we can see, this type of thinking is far from new in the history of the party. Of course, there was never a good reason why identity politics and class politics should have to be treated as exclusive conceptual entities in the first place. The idea that identity politics should in any way replace class politics is every bit as risible as the notion that identity politics is irrelevant to the class struggle. However, this is the path the Labour party chose to pursue, and it yielded results.
If New Labour had a single redeeming feature, it was that it won elections. If it ever had a point, it was to win elections. Just as 1983 enraged the Labour right, the 1997 demolition of the Tory government was their vindication. Today New Labour is unable to do what it was created for, and it was the failure to win two elections, the general election of 2010, and the Labour party leadership election that followed, that has nearly killed New Labour. 2010 didn’t go to plan for New Labour. They knew at some point they were going to lose popularity, but the assumption they worked under was that the Lib Dem’s would join Labour, along with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, in a grand anti-Tory alliance. This would complete the political project New Labour embarked on in the 80′s. The Labour left would be marginalized forever within this framework, and the SDP would be back at home with the Labour party. Except it never happened. To the shock of the Blairites, and the country, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem’s chose to get into a coalition with the Tories instead of Labour, casting Labour back into opposition, destroying the whole strategy. Not content with splitting the Labour party in the 1980′s, the SDP’s political descendants compounded their disgrace by ending up as the enablers of a vicious right-wing Tory government, helping take an axe to the welfare state.