Duncan Hallas

A focus for anger?

(January 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 1, 19 January–16 February 1981, pp. 3–5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The special Labour Party conference takes place as this issue of Socialist Review is published. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be, and speculation at this late stage is idle. But what is clear is that the attitude of many people on the left is changing compared to a couple of years ago. The huge demonstration against unemployment in Liverpool is to be followed by another in Glasgow on 21 February.

Duncan Hallas answers some questions on the significance of such events. He begins by commenting on the changing attitude of workers towards the Labour Party.

The Party certainly provides a focus for anti-Tory feeling and this is in itself a change compared to 1970-74. Then the Heath government was unpopular enough among very large numbers of workers but the Labour Party failed to grow. Taking its own official figures, for what they are worth, it had 681,000 individual card holders in 1969 and 665,000 in 1973. The party actually declined slightly, on its own data, during this period of tremendous working class struggles – the biggest since the 1920s.

Even in voting terms the same is true. In February 1974 the Labour Party actually lost over half a million votes (540,148) compared to 1970 (and in 1970 it lost nearly 900,000 compared to 1966). These losses have not yet been recovered. In May 1979, at 11,457,079, it was 107,000 down on February 1974. And the electorate was growing in this period.

Now I think we can expect a reversal of the trend, certainly in voting terms and quite probably in membership. Admittedly, there is not a great deal of hard evidence yet apart from the Merseyside demonstration, but what there is points that way.

It is not simply the impact of Thatcher, mass unemployment, cuts and so on. After all, unemployment more than doubled to reach 1,500,000 under Callaghan. It is the combination of Thatcher and the downturn in the level of direct industrial action.

At the risk of oversimplification we can say that in the 1970-74 period workers (or many groups of workers at any rate) had confidence in their own ability to beat off Heath’s attacks – hence the tremendous strike wave, the Tory Industrial Relations Act and all the rest.

Now, in the face of deepening slump and with the whole heritage of the social contract and its effects on working class solidarity. that confidence is lacking.

We have the paradox that a lowering of working class confidence and self-activity is producing a certain politicisation from which the Labour Party benefits. People have to have some hope and the very lack of self-confidence tends to overcome some of the profound cynicism towards the Labour Party produced by the Wilson-Callaghan government between 1974 and 1979.

Bob Wright made the point in the last issue of Socialist Review that his campaign against Duffy was as well organised as any of those that had led to left victories in the AUEW in the past. Nevertheless, Duffy won hands down. That is a measure of the forces that are pushing workers towards the Labour Party, in spite of all recent experience of Labour governments: But whether these will result in any really powerful left current inside the Labour Party is another matter. It depends on other factors.

Foot and especially Benn received raptuous applause in Liverpool. Has the party really moved to the left?

Undoubtedly. And the most important thing about it, from our point of view, is the breakdown of the Labour-Tory political consensus (with the Tories always edging rightwards) of the 1974–79 period.

For years and years the Labour Party – the Labour government – argued the capitalist case; more productivity, wage control, against unofficial’ strikes and even official ones, unemployment is inevitable in present circumstances, inflation is the main enemy and inflation is due mainly to wage rises, NATO and the American alliance are the safeguard of peace and so on and so forth.

In opposition, and under the impact of the slump, much of this reactionary claptrap is being cast aside ,Denis Healey too, made an aggressive anti-Tory speech at Liverpool.

Good, never mind that for the moment, the question of their sincerity or otherwise. The important thing is that they now argue that mass unemployment is not inevitable, that there is an alternative to Thatcher’s reactionary policies. This makes it very much easier for us to argue the socialist case to much larger numbers of workers.

We are no longer a small minority but part of a much bigger anti-Tory movement.

Of course, it would be very foolish to believe that the Labour Party has undergone. any great political transformation. It has not. What We are seeing is a revulsion against the conservative policies of the last Labour government. Last time round (1970–74) a similar revulsion against the experience of the 1964-70 Labour government led to the adoption of Labour’s Programme 1973 which the Bennite theoretician Stuart Holland says he wrote – and there is no reason to disbelieve him. The Labour Party then officially accepted the Bennite programme. The next year it was in office and we all know what happened.

True, there are significant differences this time. The economic crisis is much more severe. The Labour lefts have gained a serious organisational success – re-selection of MPs (even if it is watered down a bit) and some of the extreme right wing of the PLP look like peeling off soon (or being peeled off).

In spite of Foot’s efforts to unite the party around a leftish rhetoric with little specific content it is entirely possible that the Labour left can push the party further left- wards. But we should be clear what this means. It would be a leftism in the strictly reformist tradition.

Moreover the serious right-wing is not going to split. Denis Healey and his friends are staying on and preparing for the future. Above all, remember Terry Duffy and all he stands for. He is more important than all the gang of three and their friends put together. The Labour Party is not going to change very much while the right wing is dominant in the union bureaucracies, even if the rhetoric is more radical.

It is said that the change in the mood of the Labour Party offers golden opportunities to revolutionary socialists who join it. What do you think?

Of course the change of mood offers us opportunities, but only if we preserve a clear political identity outside the Labour Party. But since there has been a marked drift of ex-revolutionaries (and some who believe they are still revolutionaries) into the Labour Party it is as well to re-examine some of the entrist arguments.

Lenin’s advice to the British CP in 1920 is often pressed into service to justify entrism. He urged the CP to affiliate to the Labour Party (or to, fight for affiliation), not to dissolve its own organisation. He did not entertain for one moment the view that the Labour Party could be won to a revolutionary position. In the very speech so often quoted to support entrism he says:

‘... The Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie which exists systematically to dupe the workers with the aid of the British Noskes and Scheidemanns (The murderers of the German revolution – DH).’

His case was that the Labour Party – then growing fast in the aftermath of the first world war – was an arena in which to fight the reformists for the political souls of the larger numbers of newly politicised workers then forming it.

He stressed the point, true at that time, that:

‘It is not at all a party in the ordinary sense of the word. It is made up of members of all trade unions ... and allows sufficient freedom to all affiliated political parties ... The Labour Party has let the British Socialist Party into its ranks, permitting it to have its own press organs in which the members of the self-same Labour Party can freely and openly declare that leaders of the party are social- traitors.’

And of course, he expected the CP to be expelled. ‘Let the Thomases and other social-traitors, whom you have called by that name, expel you. That will have an excellent effect on the masses of the British workers.’

In short, he gave his advice in particular circumstances which no longer exist. In the successful struggle to keep out the CP in the twenties (for the CP followed Lenin’s advice) the Labour Party became a, party ‘in the ordinary sense of the word’ :the independent affiliated parties (i.e. the BSP and the ILP) no longer exist, the LP organisation on the ground have replaced them and the experience of Labour in Office has profoundly altered working-class consciousness.

Naturally, formal organisational considerations would not be decisive if there really were tens of thousands of newly awakened workers struggling towards socialist ideas inside the Labour Party wards.

But there are not. The Bennite left, plus its Trotskyoid entrist periphery, has just held its annual meeting. According to Socialist Worker the officially reported membership of this Labour Coordinating Committee has dropped from 800 early in 1980 to 640 now! This does not mean that there is no substantial Bennite left. It does mean that it is not be found (or is not active) in real strength in the Labour Party membership organisations. It has to be sought elsewhere.

So what should be the response of revolutionaries?

Look at the contrast between the massive turn-out at the Merseyside demonstration and the extremely, feeble turn-out for the LCC conference (well under 200). The workers influenced by left reformist ideas came in force to the first and ignored the second.

Our central political task now is t6 relate to the sort of people who came to Liverpool, first of all in activity, second by political argument.

We have to seek out every possible opportunity for united action with them, whether it be at a local or national level, within a specific union or across the board.

Whenever they take an initiative – the Glasgow demonstration on 21st February, for example – we must back it to the hilt, working loyally to make it as big and successful as possible but maintaining a clear and firm SWP political presence.

We cannot leave it at that though. We have to draw Labour people into the support of specific disputes – and they continue through the downturn. We could probably have done this more than we did around Gardners. We must do more in future struggles. And the pick-up (at long last) of ‘official’ movements against unemployment (e.g. the Liverpool to London march) does not mean that the Right to Work Campaign’s less necessary. On the contrary, it must be broadened as much as possible in order to keep up the momentum of the agitation.

Any chance of bringing Thatcher down in the next year or two depends on the direct action of important groups of workers. That is how Heath was brought down; That is where we have to try to direct the efforts of anti-Tory activists.

This united front approach is not a trick or a clever manoeuvre. We genuinely and wholeheartedly believe in the aim of creating a great anti-Tory movement – that is what Foot says he wants. At the same time we are convinced that for the working class struggle to lead to worker’s power, a revolutionary party with massive roots in the working class is indispensable. We say this openly and straightforwardly. We have the great advantage over the entrists of being able to tell the truth openly at all times.

At the same time we do not make ultimatums, we don’t contrast building the party with the day to day struggle or building an anti-Tory movement. We aim to build the SWP through these things, left reformist workers believe that there is an easier road, that the Labour Party can be made to do the job. Very well, the test is always in practice. Joint activity, joint work to revive the working class movement is essential. We can all agree on that. And we must combine it with fraternal discussion and, to repeat, for that the independent SWP presence. is essential.

Last updated on 22.11.2013