Duncan Hallas

The Labour Party:
Myth and Reality

(February 1981/September 1985)

A Socialist Workers Party Pamphlet.
First published February 1981, third revised edition September 1985, 36 pp.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


THE BIGGEST AND MOST important strike by any group of British workers for a very long time took place between March 1984 and March 1985, when the miners struck against the threat of mass pit closures.

The Labour Party was split wide open on the issue. A large number of the party’s active rank-and-file members – and many who had not before been active – supported the strike. Many of them supported it vigorously and effectively through Miners Support Committees, not just speaking up for the miners but also raising money, collecting food and travelling to mining areas to give direct support.

On the other hand the new ‘left-wing’ leader of the party, Neil Kinnock, elected only six months earlier on a left-wing platform, refused to support the strike. He condemned, ‘impartially’, the ‘violence of the police’ and ‘the violence of the pickets’. He refused to commit himself in support of the miners’ case against pit closures, profitability and unemployment. In the House of Commons he repeatedly ducked and evaded Tory and SDP challenges to state where he stood, thereby earning the deserved description as ‘the artful dodger’.

The great majority of Labour MPs supported Kinnock, with a number of honourable exceptions. Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Stuart Holland were among the most prominent. But they turned out to be a small minority.

This split really sums up the Labour Party and what can be expected from it in the future. A lot of its active members and supporters do really want to change things and create a new society. Our differences with them are about how to do it. These differences are important, very important, but at the end of the day, we are on the same side, we want the same things, we have the same vision of a free, classless, libertarian society, of ‘the world for the workers’, of real sexual and racial equality, of an end to bureaucracy, militarism and the constant threat of war.

The Labour Party leadership, however, is not on our side. Quite the opposite. And not just the present Kinnock-Hattersley leadership, but all Labour Party leaderships from the beginning. Is this a matter of accident, of a few rotten apples rising to the top of the barrel? We do not believe it for one moment. Not ‘rotten apples’ – although there have been plenty of them – but the whole reformist method is at fault. For it means working within the limits of the present system in an attempt to modify it in the interests of working people. It means accepting ‘the constitution’ (a constitution which enshrines the class divisions of society). It means accepting the present economic system (a capitalist system whose very foundation is the exploitation of working people). It means that for the past sixty years Labour governments have acted as alternative governments for British capitalism.

This fact has been admitted, at least as far as recent Labour governments are concerned, by Tony Benn – himself a minister in the Labour governments of 1964–70 and 1974–79. Interviewed by Socialist Worker on 15 June 1985, he said: ‘What you are saying is that some Labour governments since the war have been in effect SDP governments – there’s no doubt that’s true.’

We would say that not some Labour governments but all have behaved in this way – and not by accident.

Can it be different in the future? Is there a way forward to socialism through the Labour Party? Let us look at the record and at the prospects.

The making of the party

‘... a withdrawal of confidence in the political and constitutional method would be the greatest calamity for Labour just at this momentous period in our history when the position is so promising’.
Arthur Henderson, secretary of the Labour Party, speaking at the Trades Union Congress in 1919.

ONE OF THE GREAT myths about the Labour Party is that however bad it may sometimes be, there was a time when it was different. People look back to the great days of Nye Bevan just as an older generation looked back to the great days of Keir Hardie. Then, so they say, there were giants in the party. It really did champion the rights of working men and women, really did stand for ‘a new social order’.

Of course people who think like this are not really living in the past. They are consoling themselves for the betrayal of their hopes by the leaders of the past two Labour governments, and hoping for a better future. ‘If only we could get rid of the right-wing leaders and get back to what the party really stands for’ – that is the thought behind the myth.

But myth it is. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan did not behave differently, in any important respect, from any previous Labour leaders. And Harold Wilson’s statements when in opposition were well to the left of those being made now by Neil Kinnock.

Wilson and Callaghan believed in managing the capitalist system. So did all their predecessors. So does Neil Kinnock. They believed that when the system is threatened – whether by militant workers, Irish republicans or whatever – it has to be defended. They believed that, when necessary, workers must make sacrifices to prop up the system that exploits them. So does the leadership of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock today. Jobs and Industry, their present economic programme, is a programme for the management of British capitalism.

In fact the Labour Party has been, since the 1920s, the alternative government of the British capitalist state. Labour governments may not have been liked over-much by the employing class, but they could be relied upon not to rock the (capitalist) boat too much. When the going has got too rough for the Tories, the Labour Party has been able to take over and calm things down. As we shall see, this happened in 1945 and in 1974, when Labour governments were brought to office by mass radicalisation among the working class.

But there is a complication. The Labour Party has always had a left wing. It has always had members, including leading members, who have talked about the need to abolish capitalism, about the need for socialism. Sometimes they have shouted it from the rooftops. Sometimes they have whispered it very softly indeed. But they have been around since the beginning.

At various times, as we shall see, left and right have fought, sometimes bitterly. The left has made its mark on the party in a number of ways. More than that, the Labour left has been essential to the development of the Labour Party. Without the Labour left, the party could never have dominated the working-class movement.

Yet with all the changes and internal conflicts of the past seventy years, the party has remained an essentially conservative force. Not, of course, an ordinary conservative party but a conservative workers’ party (and that remains true no matter how many middle-class MPs it has). It is a party wedded to capitalism but depending on a working-class base. It is a party which owes its very existence to working-class discontent and working-class struggle but which aims, at all costs, to prevent the overthrow of capitalism, the revolution. And it always has been.

It was in December 1918 that the Labour Party as we know it first fought a general election as a genuinely independent party with an election platform of its own, Labour and the New Social Order – the first plank, by the way, was ‘A policy of full employment’! In that election, the first in which every man had a vote, Labour won two and a quarter million votes, 57 seats and the position of official opposition to Lloyd George’s Tory-dominated coalition.

Earlier that year it became, for the first time, a membership organisation with branches which supporters could join, a party in the ordinary sense. And it adopted, also for the first time, the aim of socialism (characteristically the word itself was not used) in the famous Clause Four of the 1918 party constitution:

‘To secure for the producers by hand or brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service.’

On the face of it these were considerable advances for an organisation which had previously been a timid trade union pressure group and owed its modest parliamentary representation to a secret electoral pact with the Liberal Party – a pact negotiated by the sainted Keir Hardie, who publicly denied its existence and privately worked might and main to prevent Labour candidates running for election against supporters of the pre-1914 Liberal government. The terms of the pact had required that Labour candidates who were given a free run by the Liberals would support ‘the general objectives of the Liberal Party’!

1918 and the end of the First World War was a time of massive working-class radicalisation all over Europe. The Tsar had been overthrown the year before and the Bolsheviks were in power in Russia; the German Kaiser was forced to flee by mutinous soldiers and armed workers that November and a supposedly ‘red’ government installed in Germany. The Austrian Empire fell to pieces and a socialist workers’ militia controlled Vienna. In Britain itself the growth of working-class consciousness was dramatically shown by the explosion of trade union membership from four million members in TUC-affiliated unions in 1913 to eight million in 1919, and indeed by 2.25 million votes for what was now, on paper, a party committed to ‘a new social order’.

The men who led the transformation of the Labour Party from a pressure group dependent on the Liberals – as it had existed since 1900 – into an independent political party rode the wave of post-war radicalism, the better to control it. Three of them, the authors of the 1918 Labour Party constitution, stand out. Arthur Henderson, secretary of the party from 1912 to 1934 and parliamentary leader from 1914 to 1917, had served in Lloyd George’s war cabinet in 1916–17 and had opposed (unsuccessfully) the Labour Party’s break with the wartime coalition in January 1918. Sidney Webb, who also wrote Labour and the New Social Order, had strongly opposed any break with the Liberal Party prior to 1914 and was a fervent ‘patriot’ throughout the war. James Ramsay MacDonald, parliamentary leader from 1911 to 1914 and then from 1922 to 1931, enjoyed a spurious reputation for radicalism because he had criticised British foreign policy as being partly responsible for the war. He was, in reality, an ‘extreme moderate’.

These men, and those around them, had not changed, but they saw the need to appear to change. The cause of Lib-Labbery was not only clearly lost but also a handicap in the new and dangerous situation. The great thing now was to oppose the ‘spirit of bolshevism’ (as the Daily Mail called it), to oppose all kinds of direct action and ‘unconstitutional’ activities. 1919 was to see a massive and most militant wave of strikes and the beginning of the Irish war of independence. The Labour leaders could feel the coming storm. They had rivals, revolutionaries in the working-class movement, few in numbers but not without influence and soon to join together to form the Communist Party.

A respectable, constitutional party appealing to working people was necessary to head off dangerous (that is revolutionary) forces. Henderson was far-sighted enough to see, immediately after the Russian February revolution in 1917, that ‘some sort of socialist faith was the necessary basis for the consolidation of the Labour Party into an effective national force.’ And he was quite willing to cooperate with various left-wingers to break down the opposition of his less intelligent right-wing colleagues to the new course. On one condition. That they accept that the party must operate solely ‘by means of Parliamentary Democracy’, as Henderson put it in a letter rejecting Communist Party affiliation.

That was the really important issue. Socialist rhetoric was now in order. Indeed it was necessary. The lefts who really believed in the rhetoric had a vital role to play here. But the party must be bound hand and foot to the institutions of the capitalist state. Which meant, of course, that the socialist objective was secondary, in fact that it was strictly for show and not for use. Yet it was also operational in a peculiar way. Generations of left-wingers would appeal to Clause Four as a sort of magic charm which helped them to swallow the reality of right-wing dominance and yet still believe that the party was ‘really’ socialist.

Thus the Labour Party was born. Naturally, it was not simply the child of a few scheming politicians. The trade union bureaucracies on which the whole operation depended for finance and sustenance were, if anything, still more conservative than the MacDonalds and the Hendersons. And without the radicalisation of millions of workers produced by the ‘war to end wars’ and its aftermath, the party would not have got off the ground when it did.

It was a product of the class struggle, a workers’ party, but it was also (consciously and deliberately so far as the leaders were concerned) an anti-revolutionary party. That fact was to dominate its future course and make a nonsense of its pretensions to socialism.

For socialism, workers’ power, the ‘self-emancipation of the working class’ as Marx put it, is necessarily revolutionary. It means that ‘the last shall be first and the first shall be last’, as the Christian version has it, and that is revolutionary by definition. It will not be achieved without destroying ‘the constitution’ and disarming the soldiers and the police who defend it on behalf of the parasitic ruling classes.

‘Making Labour fit to govern’

‘MacDonald proved to be a reasonable man; the new Prime Minister and his Cabinet in due course made their debut at Court colourfully clad in the uniforms of Ministers of the Crown – a blue, gold-braided tail coat and white knee breeches with sword – a courtesy that went far to reassure my father.’
(ex-King Edward VIII in A King’s Story)

THE GREAT STRIKE WAVE of 1919–20 passed. The union leaders had succeeded in keeping it within ‘constitutional’ limits – although the TUC was driven to threaten a general strike in 1920 if the government went to war with Soviet Russia in support of Poland. And at the end of 1920 came the slump. Unemployment soon jumped above the one million level and never fell below it again until the second world war. Union membership fell dramatically from over 8 million in 1920 to 5.5 million in 1922 as the employers’ counter-offensive – culminating in the engineering lock-out of 1922 – gained considerable successes.

In 1919–21 the main struggle between the working class and the capitalists was in industry and the main struggle between left and right in the labour movement was in the unions. A right-wing Labour historian, Pelling, admits: ‘In the first post-war years, parliamentary politics had little importance for the movement as a whole.’ But in 1922 the downturn in industrial struggle coincided with the disintegration of the coalition government – the Tories pulled out and forced a general election.

That election and those that followed (there were three general elections in three years) showed that the 1918 election was not a fluke. The war-time radicalisation had produced a long-term shift in working-class consciousness. Labour replaced the Liberals in the main industrial centres with 4,236,733 votes and 142 MPs in 1922. Two Communists were also elected (Saklatvala, with local Labour support, in North Battersea and Walton Newbold in Motherwell).

The new Labour MPs, including a sizeable contingent of ‘Red Clydesiders’, were well to the left of the elderly ex-trade union officials who had dominated the parliamentary party till then.

They celebrated their election by insisting on booting out the right-wing leader of the parliamentary party, J.R. Clynes. ‘We were going to do big things. The people believed that. We believed that,’ wrote one of them, David Kirkwood, a former militant in the wartime struggles on Clydeside.

The first and only ‘big thing’ they did was to elect James Ramsay MacDonald as leader of the party (he won with 61 votes to Clynes’ 56). MacDonald’s credentials as a man of the ‘left’ were the violent attacks made on him by the capitalist press during the war and his talents as a spell-binder, a master of cloudy rhetoric that could mean all things to all men.

MacDonald, however, was above all concerned to show that ‘Labour is fit to govern’. In other words, that the Labour Party could supply a government of the British Empire – then at its height – which would not upset the apple cart, which would behave like any other government in all essential matters, which would maintain British capitalism and British imperialism against any challenge from the workers or the colonial peoples.

The most significant fact about the Labour lefts of the 1920s – who have been rightly described as ‘the most powerful, the most promising Labour left ever’ – is that they put their faith and hope in a man like MacDonald. A raw recruit might be excused for having illusions in him. No one who knew his actual record, and the left MPs could not help but know it, could claim any such indulgence.

But the left MPs had made their fundamental choice when they turned their backs on the Communist Party. This was then quite different from the party of the 1930s and 1940s, when it was merely an apologist for the despotism of Stalin, or the party of today, when, like the Labour Party, it is entirely reformist. In the 1920s the Communist Party was a real but small revolutionary socialist party which looked for change through the struggle of workers themselves. The Labour left of the 1920s rejected this, instead opting for the ‘easier’, ‘more practical’ road of parliamentarianism and ‘constitutionalism’. Given this basic decision, they then had to make another ‘practical’ decision – between Clynes, a candidate of the Labour right wing, and MacDonald, who could win if they backed him.

The pattern was repeated in 1935 when the left successfully backed Attlee (against Morrison, the candidate of the right); in 1963 when the lefts successfully backed Wilson (against Brown, the candidate of the right); in 1980 when the lefts successfully backed Foot (against Healey, the candidate of the right) and, of course, in 1983 when the lefts successfully backed Kinnock (against Hattersley, the candidate of the right). In each of these contests the lefts deluded themselves into believing that they had scored a real victory!

MacDonald got his chance when the new Tory Prime Minister, Baldwin, called another general election in December 1923. The Labour Party got much the same vote (4,348,379) but returned 191 MPs. A Labour government could easily have been prevented if the capitalist parties, having a big majority of MPs between them, had been really afraid of it. They were not. Their more far-sighted leaders actually welcomed it: ‘If a Labour government is ever to be tried in this country, as it will be sooner or later, it could hardly be tried under safer conditions,’ said Asquith, leader of the Liberal Party (which still had 157 MPs). Baldwin, the Tory leader, agreed.

The Labour government of 1924, declared Clynes (who was appointed Lord Privy Seal by MacDonald), ‘played the part of a national government, and not a class government, and I am certain that any government, whatever it might be, could not in the circumstances have done more than we have done to safeguard the public interests’.

Read capitalist for ‘national’, working-class for ‘class’, and bourgeois for ‘public’, and Clynes, the acknowledged leader of the party’s right wing, spoke the simple truth. The trivial incident of the wearing of court dress by Labour ministers on the presentation of the Cabinet to King George V (a dying custom, soon to be abandoned by the Tories) set the tone for everything the government did. Its only controversial measure was to give diplomatic recognition to Soviet Russia and when, after eleven months, the Liberals decided to turn Labour out, the new Tory government saw no reason to reverse that or anything else MacDonald had done.

When that Labour government first took office, the left MPs were violently critical. They forced the election of a ‘Consultative Committee’ of twelve backbenchers and three ministers to ‘oversee’ government policy. One of the lefts later wrote: ‘Week after week a steady succession of Ministers were summoned to appear before it and did’. With no effect at all. For what sanctions did the lefts have? Vote against the government? But that would quite likely bring it down, which was unthinkable. The lefts were caught in a trap of their own making, just as their successors down to the present day have been caught.

So they took refuge in the alibi that Labour ‘was in office but not in power’, that is to say the real problem was the lack of a parliamentary majority. Therefore, work to win one and don’t rock the boat too much.

It seemed plausible. Certainly many Labour voters believed it. At the general election of 1924 the Labour vote actually increased to nearly 5.5 million, although seats won went down to 151. And the events of 1925–26 indirectly greatly strengthened the appeal of the Labour Party.

The general strike of 1926 was the last serious extra-parliamentary challenge to the British ruling class for a long, long time. The story of its betrayal and defeat cannot be told here (for a brief account, see the pamphlet Days of Hope by Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman [1]). The relevant point is that the defeat greatly weakened the appeal of the revolutionary left – the Communist Party – in the medium term and so, inevitably, helped the Labour Party to increase its dominance in the working-class movement.

The fact that MacDonald assured the House of Commons in 1926 that ‘with the discussion of general strikes and Bolshevism and all that kind of thing, I have nothing to do at all. I respect the Constitution’ hurt him in the eyes of militants. But if no way forward could be seen outside parliament, then the Labour Party was bound to gain.

There had been nearly 86 million strike days in 1920, falling to just under 20 million in 1921. The annual average for 1922–25 was about 12 million. 1926 saw 162 million strike days. Thereafter there was a catastrophic drop. From 1927 to 1932 the annual average was well under 5 million and the decline was accelerating. The 1933–39 annual average was not much over 1.5 million strike days. Trade union membership fell to less than 4.5 million in 1933, little more than half the 1920 figure.

These figures of declining confidence and declining militancy form the background to the Labour Party’s growing dominance over any rival to its left. It was, in considerable measure, the product of defeat and demoralisation.

But the impulse to find some way forward was still alive amongst millions of workers. In 1929 (the first election held with universal suffrage – women on the same terms as men) the Labour Party gained 8,364,883 votes and, with 287 MPs, became the biggest party in parliament. MacDonald formed his second government, as before with Liberal support.

The 1929–31 Labour government was 1924 writ large. With this difference: the world economy went into a slump. In 1929 there were 1,230,164 registered unemployed in Britain. By 1931 the figure was 2,745,000 – one fifth of the workforce. The real total was well over three million.

The government proved able to stick to its fundamental commitment – to do nothing that would actually attack capitalist interests – even in this crisis. Its record, as Attlee, a future Labour prime minister, said after its fall, was ‘a record entirely devoid of any attempt to introduce Socialism or fundamentally to transform the economic system’.

In 1931 MacDonald, irritated by the reluctance of his cabinet to accept a new round of sweeping cuts in government spending, including a cut of 20 per cent in unemployment benefit, did a private deal with the Tories, fired most of his colleagues and emerged as prime minister of a ‘National government’. In the subsequent general election, run on the slogans ‘Save the Pound, Save the Country’, he swept the board. Only 46 Labour MPs were elected – not counting 13 who stood as ‘National Labour’ supporting MacDonald! – and the party’s vote dropped by two million.

This was the ‘great betrayal’ which was to play such a big part in Labour mythology in the next decade. Labour leaders who had praised MacDonald to the skies, who had held office in his governments, who had supported his policies and called his critics ‘wild men’ and ‘bolsheviks’, now denounced him as a villain of the deepest dye who, practically unaided, had wrecked the party. Some of them discovered that not only was he the biggest traitor since Judas (the comparison was freely used) but that he had been so from the beginning. Practically everything that had ever gone wrong in the party was due to the machinations of MacDonald.

Behind this massive smokescreen the party leaders hoped to carry on business as usual – ‘MacDonaldism without MacDonald’ as it was aptly put. They did not find it easy. The left revived strongly. From the beginning there had been two kinds of left-wing members in the Labour Party. They can conveniently be called the ‘hard’ left and the ‘soft’ left. The hard left in the 1920s meant, essentially, people in or strongly influenced by the Communist Party. Their distinguishing feature was rejection of the whole notion of a parliamentary road to socialism – for that was the cornerstone of Communist Party doctrine in those days. Since the Labour Party had started as a federation and kept the federal principle, with the affiliation of unions and socialist societies, even after it began to admit individual members in 1918, Communist Party members could and did belong to the Labour Party too.

One of the main concerns of the MacDonald leadership was to get rid of these Communist members as an essential part of proving Labour ‘fit to govern’ British capitalism. The Communist Party’s application for affiliation as a party was easily rejected in 1920, 1921, 1922 and after. The Edinburgh conference of 1922 also made Communist Party members ineligible to serve as delegates to conference from local Labour parties. This was reversed in 1923 but reaffirmed in 1924, when it was also resolved by a narrow majority on a card vote (1,804,000 to 1,540,000) that Communist Party members be ineligible for membership of local Labour parties. This proved hard to enforce and was repeated in 1925 together with an appeal to affiliated unions not to elect Communist Party members as delegates.

All this referred to open Communist Party members, but from 1926 the Communist Party resorted to a ‘cover’ organisation, the National Left Wing Movement. The MacDonald leadership then resorted to expelling affiliated local Labour Parties: by mid-1927 twenty-three had been thrown out for association with the National Left Wing Movement.

But in 1928 the Communist Party swung wildly far to the left on Stalin’s orders – as did Communist parties all over the world. Previously it had called for critical support for Labour election candidates except where its own were running. Now it denounced Labour as ‘the third capitalist party’ and called on workers not to vote Labour. Soon it was denouncing the Labour Party as ‘social fascist’. This alone would have torpedoed the National Left Wing Movement, since the majority of its members were not Communist Party members – but in any case the Communist majority on its national committee voted to dissolve the movement.

Most important, the ultra-left swing of the Communist Party prevented it from seriously influencing or winning over the large number of Labour Party members who were undoubtedly open to the appeal of revolutionary socialist politics after MacDonald’s betrayal in 1931. And by the time the Communist Party again started working to influence the Labour left, after 1934, its own politics had changed and it was no longer a revolutionary party.

The ‘soft’ left did not reject the parliamentary road in principle, although many of them had reservations about it. After 1932 they split into two strands. One controlled the Independent Labour Party, an original affiliated society which they took out of the Labour Party that year. The ‘independent’ ILP continued to have a handful of MPs until after 1945 but as a significant force it had disintegrated ten years earlier. Neither clearly revolutionary nor consistently reformist, it rapidly lost members both to the Labour Party and to the Communist Party.

The other strand formed the Socialist League, also in 1932, with the aim of capturing the Labour Party for ‘socialist policies’, specifically for ‘immediate nationalisation of the banks, the land, the mines, power, transport, iron and steel, cotton and control of foreign trade with restricted compensation’. Its leading figures included Attlee, Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan: all future Labour ministers.

The flavour of the Socialist League’s politics can be gauged from the title of one of its early pamphlets, Can Socialism Come by Constitutional Means? by Stafford Cripps. After warning that ‘the ruling class will go to almost any length to defeat Parliamentary action if the issue is the direct issue as to the continuance of their financial and political control’, Cripps concluded that it might be possible if a Labour government could

‘call Parliament together at the earliest moment and place before it an Emergency Powers Bill to be passed through all its stages on the first day. This Bill will be wide enough in its terms to allow all that will be immediately necessary to be done by ministerial orders. These orders must be incapable of challenge in the courts or in any way except in the House of Commons.’

Or as Clement Attlee put it:

‘The moment to strike at capitalism is the moment when the government is freshly elected and assured of its support. The blow struck must be a fatal one and not merely designed to wound and turn a sullen and obstructive opponent into an active and deadly enemy.’

The Socialist League was successful in getting most of its policies adopted at Labour Party Conferences between 1932 and 1935, in spite of stubborn opposition from the right wing. Its agitation played a vital role in ‘rehabilitating’ the party in the eyes of politically conscious workers. In these years local party membership grew by 122,000 – from under 300,000 in 1931 to over 400,000 in 1935 – and the activists who made this possible were overwhelmingly on the left. There were also big gains in local elections, especially the capture of the London County Council for the first time in 1934.

In the 1935 general election the party nearly recovered its 1929 vote (it got 8,325,260 votes and 154 seats) and Attlee, the candidate of the left, became parliamentary leader (he won with 58 votes to 44 for Morrison and 33 for Greenwood).

All this looked impressive but it soon became obvious that the new ‘left’ leadership was above all concerned to be ‘respectable’. A new left, still dominated by the Socialist League, was soon attacking it furiously. But that left was quickly derailed and sucked into the Communist Party’s ‘Popular Front’ campaign.

From denouncing Labour as a capitalist party the Communist Party had swung, on Stalin’s orders again, to calling for an electoral alliance to form a ‘Popular Front’ government of Labour, Liberals and Communists, Naturally, the policies of the Front had to be acceptable to the Liberals – no nonsense about socialism. The ‘Popular Front’ was essentially about foreign policy. Its aim was the formation of an alliance between Britain, France and Russia against Hitler. The class war was out. Defence of the British and French Empires was in.

It is a mark of the weakness of the left of the late thirties, its lack of connection with any actual workers’ struggles, that it could swallow a position formally to the right of the party leadership. Tribune, founded by Cripps, Bevan and Strauss in January 1937, became the rallying centre for this new left after the Socialist League dissolved itself under pressure from the leadership. But Tribune did not attack Attlee’s drift rightwards from his position of 1934. It stood for a new Lib-Lab pact! And so the soft left committed suicide.

High tide and after ...

‘The Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain.’
Labour Party election manifesto, 1945

THE LABOUR PARTY joined the second world war coalition government in May 1940. Attlee became deputy prime minister under Churchill. Apart from a few weeks in 1945, he and his senior collaborators were to remain in office for 11 years. That fact is important for understanding the Labour Party since 1945.

It was inevitable that the Labour Party should support the new war in 1939, given all that had happened. Pacifist anti-war positions, such as had been held by many of the Labour Party left in 1914–18, were clearly not on in the face of the menace of Hitler’s fascism. The only viable alternative to class-collaboration, to the real ‘Popular Front’ of Labour, Liberals and Tories which ruled from 1940 to 1945, was revolutionary opposition to Hitler and his potential allies in the British ruling class.

This was out of the question for both right and left in the Labour Party. The left, which had favoured the Communist Party’s Popular Front line, broke with the Communist Party when Hitler and Stalin made their famous pact in 1939. They would not follow the Communist Party into what was in effect an abandonment of the fight against fascism. (The Communist Party’s fake ‘anti-war’ line lasted until June 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia. After that they became super-patriots, outdoing the Labour leaders in unconditional support for Churchill.)

Because they had no alternative policy, the Labour left went along with the coalition.

They criticised in parliament. Aneurin Bevan in particular made his reputation by repeated attacks on the viciously reactionary home and foreign policies of the Churchill government. No ‘left’ MP in the past 45 years had come anywhere near showing the same guts and persistence as Bevan did in denouncing the surrender of his own leaders – they were in the cabinet – to the interests of capitalism. And it took guts. There was censorship. There was the threat of the Emergency Powers Act, which included imprisonment without trial, even for MPs. There was control of the press and radio comparable to that exerted by Hitler then and Gorbachev today. Socialists were sent to prison in 1944 for supporting a strike!

What sustained Bevan, and his very few collaborators, was a growing and massive radicalisation of working people. The first world war had broken the hold of the capitalist parties, especially the Liberal Party, on the working class. The second world war produced a much wider and deeper radicalisation.

A Tory MP, Quintin Hogg – now Lord Hailsham – put it in these words in a speech in parliament in 1943: ‘We must give the people reforms or they will give us revolution’. It was no exaggeration. The war proved to everybody that full employment was possible. Even married women were conscripted to work in industry, agriculture or the armed forces and the pre-war ‘unemployables’ were all working. There was not only no unemployment, but there was a desperate shortage of labour. For what? For production for war. But why not, then, full employment in peacetime? Why not production for use and not for profit? Why not an end to poverty, misery and victimisation?

These ideas, argued in many ways, including a series of booklets and pamphlets by Bevan, Michael Foot and others, really took hold in the minds of millions. Of millions.

When, in 1945, the coalition broke up, and Churchill denounced his cabinet colleagues of yesterday as dangerous reds, it cut no ice at all. Indeed it helped them.

The 1945 general election, the first for ten years, was fought on a hopelessly out-of-date register which excluded about a million new voters, overwhelmingly left voters, but in spite of that the Tories were routed. The Labour Party got nearly 12 million votes and returned 393 MPs, a crushing majority. The Communist Party also returned two MPs. There could be no more talk of ‘in office but not in power’. The ‘new social order’ was on the order of the day. (The Communist Party, by the way, had opposed the break-up of the Labour-Tory-Liberal coalition and called for a ‘government of national unity’ in the years after the war!)

The armed forces, the core of any state, numbered millions at the end of the war – and this immense force was discontented to the point of mutiny. Mutinies of men and women demanding to be released from service and sent home actually broke out in Egypt, India and Malaya – all then parts of the British Empire. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen were involved.

What a splendid chance for a left wing but ‘constitutional’ government of the sort Attlee and Co. had called for! The generals, the admirals, the air marshals were powerless. The ‘fatal blow’ at capitalism could have been struck then without any real danger of military intervention.

The point is that the forces of reaction had no chance, no chance whatever, of appealing to the armed forces to suppress the workers’ movement at that time. The officers were well to the right of the government, the rank and file were well to the left of it.

For a year or two, between 1944 and 1946, there was a potentially revolutionary situation in Britain (as there was also in France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Indonesia and other places). The Labour government put its whole weight behind the forces of counter-revolution at home and abroad. It sent troops to crush the left in Greece. It helped the French to take over Vietnam and the Dutch to take over Indonesia. It backed the USA without hesitation in the ‘cold war’ that developed from 1947.

And yet that same government emerged with credit, with increased working-class support. How was that possible?

The short answer is full employment. And not only full employment – although it was very hard not to get a job in the late forties and fifties – but also quite substantial social reforms, the National Health Service above all. These were the things that influenced the millions of Labour voters.

The hundreds of thousands of Labour activists (and they really had that sort of force at this time) were also influenced by the nationalisation measures. The 1945–51 Labour government nationalised the Bank of England, Cable and Wireless, coal mining, railways, canals, road haulage, British Airways, gas, electricity, iron and steel. This fell well short of the Socialist League programme (which had become party policy before the war) and certainly far short of taking over ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy.

Nonetheless these were substantial nationalisation measures, however bureaucratically carried out, and left wingers, inside and outside the Labour Party, were astonished that they had happened. Here was proof, many of them thought, that the Labour Party really had changed. And if it could nationalise one-fifth of the economy (that is what the nationalisation amounted to), why not two-fifths, three-fifths and then four-fifths?

Take these three things together: full employment, the health service, big-scale nationalisation. Surely, with all the defects, they demonstrated that there was a parliamentary road forward?

There is no denying that the measures brought in by the 1945–51 government were substantial and did affect, for the better, the everyday lives of the vast majority of working people in Britain. 1945–51 was not simply a repetition of 1929–31.

Of course it was not. The mass radicalisation, the unofficial strike wave of 1943–44, the mutinies in the armed forces – including one not so far mentioned, the mutiny of the entire Indian navy in 1946, for India was still ruled by Britain – shook British imperialism to its foundations. To survive it had to make concessions. The Labour government was the means, the instrument, to carry out the necessary minimum concessions.

Its path was smoothed because it inherited the controlled economy established by the Churchill government and because, as has been noted, Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison, Ernest Bevin and other key Labour leaders had helped to run that controlled economy since 1940.

It is worthwhile looking at that controlled economy in view of what, subsequently, was declared ‘impossible’ by later Labour leaders.

Prices, virtually all prices, were rigorously controlled. Profits were rigorously controlled and ‘excess’ profits confiscated. What could or could not be produced was determined by the planning commissions. No raw materials were supplied to any concern except for the production of specified products. Competition was eliminated. Only a limited and planned range of goods were made. Foreign trade was in the hands of the state. Movements of capital and currency into and out of the country were state-controlled. There was no ‘free market’ for goods, money or capital.

All this was enforced for war production by a Tory-dominated coalition under Churchill. Faced with a life or death struggle against their German rivals, British capitalists submitted to all this; indeed they provided the means to implement it. An Emergency Powers Act far more wide-sweeping than that proposed by Cripps gave the government power to conscript property and people without appeal.

All this the Labour government inherited. If ever there was a chance for ‘Socialism by Constitutional Means’ it was in 1945–46. The government had legal powers to do practically everything. The possibility of illegal violence by the right was practically ruled out.

Attlee’s government merely pushed through the nationalisation of some bankrupt industries: ‘There was not much real opposition to our nationalisation policy’ he recalled afterwards – and set out to demolish the controlled economy, especially after the famous ‘bonfire of controls’ in 1948. Big business pressure always won. It was bound to because the government made cooperation with big business the heart of its economic policy. Labour is a ‘constitutional’ party. Why, they could not even bring themselves to sweep away the monarchy and the House of Lords!

They did, however, develop the first British atomic bomb, which was exploded in 1949, and started the development of the British H-bomb, which was carried to completion under the Tories and exploded in 1954. They slavishly followed every twist and turn of US foreign policy, sending British troops to fight for US imperialism in Korea. They carried on their own ‘anti-communist’ war in Malaya after 1948 and in Borneo. They took Britain into NATO in 1949. They promoted the Cold War, witch-hunts and all.

This is the government which Tony Benn contrasts favourably with those of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1951 general election the Labour vote was the highest ever: 13,948,385. This was 49 per cent of the votes cast, but the Tories, with a lower vote, just scraped in.

The Labour leaders had predicted a return to mass unemployment if the Tories won. It didn’t happen. It slowly became obvious that it was not the Labour government but the world boom – the longest in the history of capitalism – that produced full employment.

The party’s vote slowly declined in successive elections. There was not a great deal of difference between the Tory governments of the 1950s and Attlee’s government in its last years. Interest in politics fell off.

Union organisation, above all shop floor organisations (exceedingly weak before 1939), grew rapidly. Wages, real wages, were pushed up by piecemeal local action. There was only one real national official strike in the 1950s – by the train drivers’ union ASLEF, if we leave aside some token actions in engineering. But the cumulative effect of local bargaining under conditions of industrial boom and negligible unemployment was a massive increase in living standards. The Tory leader, Harold Macmillan, was not lying when he claimed in 1959: ‘You’ve never had it so good.’

Against this background, a new Labour left fought out its battle. Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson had resigned from the Attlee government in protest against the imposition of charges in the Health Service to help pay for the enormous rearmament programme then under way. They actually resigned and denounced the government, unlike Tony Benn, who remained a minister to the bitter end under Wilson and Callaghan.

Bevan, Wilson and others went on to attack the right in Tribune and in a series of pamphlets and to organise, in the early 1950s, a series of Tribune ‘Brains Trust’ meetings in all the major centres. Party membership reached its height in 1952 – over a million members on paper – and the local Labour Parties were still vigorous. This was Bevan’s base. The right wing counter-attacked violently. A right-winger, Hugh Dalton, spoke accurately about ‘a deep division in the Labour Party and deep hatreds’.

The left around Bevan stood on a platform of Back to 1945. They were obsessed with the notion that not only had the 1945–51 government been successful in its own terms but also that it had been a government of ‘socialist advance’.

Enough of the active members agreed with them to ensure that the constituency seats on the party’s national executive were captured one after another by Bevan’s supporters. But the union leaderships were largely right-wing at this time and because Bevan’s supporters had no grassroots industrial base and no thought of trying to build one, it was impossible for them to weaken the solid block of union support for the right.

The struggle went on for years. The right-wing leader, Gaitskell (1955–63), was backed by a new breed of ‘theorists’ who argued that, really, capitalism no longer existed so socialism was irrelevant. People like Antony Crosland and Roy Jenkins claimed that the boom would go on for ever, that ‘there are no longer any purely economic problems’ (yes, really!). With this kind of support and the backing of the trade union right, Gaitskell made a head-on attack on the party’s nominal ‘socialism’ by trying in 1959 and 1960 to delete Clause Four from the party constitution.

Those years marked the last fling of the Tribunite left. They were being reinforced by young people drawn into politics through the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and were able to defeat Gaitskell on Clause Four and even commit the party (briefly) to unilateral nuclear disarmament (1960). But their real strength was ebbing fast. The local Labour parties were already suffering from chronic anaemia. A quarter of a million members had been lost (net) by 1961. And those that remained were less and less active, in spite of the influx from CND. They had also become much more middle class. Apart from the youth organisation (twice disbanded for being too left wing), political conflict was no longer centred on the local Labour parties. The struggle in the unions was increasingly the important one.

There was another victory to come though. When Gaitskell died in 1963 the left MPs put up Harold Wilson for the leadership. The right was split. A sizeable section led by James Callaghan were becoming convinced that ‘left-bashing’ in the Gaitskell manner was hurting their electoral chances. They figured that Wilson would talk left but act right and, like MacDonald and Attlee before him, could unite the party and sterilise the left. So Callaghan split the right-wing vote to keep out Brown, Gaitskell’s heir. (The figures were Wilson 115, Brown 88, Callaghan 41 on the first ballot.) Never was a political calculation more justified by events.

Labour in power

‘The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. We shall not suffer this party to become either a soulless bureaucracy or a vote-dealing Tammany Hall.’
Harold Wilson, from a speech in 1964

THE ‘MORAL CRUSADE’ regained office in 1964. Within weeks it was clear that the new ‘left’ management was as committed to capitalism as the discredited right wing. At first the excuse was its small parliamentary majority – only four if Tories and Liberals voted together – but in 1966 Wilson took the plunge again and won easily with a majority of 96 seats.

Tribune greeted the 1966 election result with the headline: Socialism is Right Back on the Agenda!

What was really on the agenda was a government which deliberately doubled unemployment (from around 300,000 to 600,000) by deflationary economic policies, which introduced a racist immigration law, which slavishly supported the USA’s genocidal war in Vietnam and every twist and turn of US foreign policy, which made more cuts in social services than the previous Tory governments and, to cap it all, tried to introduce anti-union legislation.

Everything the Labour left claimed to stand for was trampled in the mud by the 1964–70 Labour government. It was, by any standards, a mean, nasty and thoroughly reactionary government.

Wilson had said in 1964:

‘You cannot go cap in hand to the central bankers as they (the Tories) have done and maintain your freedom of action, whether on policies maintaining full employment here in Britain or even on social policies. The central bankers will before long be demanding that Britain puts her house in order and this ideal of an orderly house usually comes to mean vicious inroads into the Welfare State and a one-sided pay pause. The government would then launch into savage cuts. The brunt will again fall on wages, on salaries, on the ordinary family struggling to make ends meet.’

And that is exactly what Wilson’s government did. Yet it was defended, apologised for and sustained by the Labour left! Tribune greeted the formation of the government in 1964 with a headline: ‘Tribune takes over from Eton in the Cabinet’. True enough, Bevan was dead but practically all the leading Tribune MPs – Barbara Castle, Anthony Greenwood, Tony Benn and others – were in the cabinet. Only Michael Foot stayed out, keeping his ‘left-wing’ reputation to come in handy when James Callaghan needed a little ‘left’ cover some years later.

Why did these Tribune left-wingers collapse so easily? Because they were trapped by their own politics, by the illusion that the Labour Party is the way to socialism in Britain and therefore must be sustained in office. The Labour right, on occasions, has been willing to face a split in the party. The modern Labour left never. So right-wing dominance is always maintained in practice, no matter how much left-wing rhetoric is used to cover it up. The parliamentary obsession ensures it.

Labour lost office to the Tories under Edward Heath in 1970. In opposition the party swung sharply to the left. Labour’s Programme, 1973, the basis of the 1974 election platform, promised ‘a massive and irreversible shift in the distribution of both wealth and power in favour of working people and their families.’

What actually happened after the 1974 miners’ strike had brought down the Tory government? A group of Labour left-wingers tell the tale in a book titled What went wrong, published in 1979. It is a devastating indictment of the Wilson/Callaghan government of 1974–79. Some idea of the contents can be gleaned from the chapter headings: The abandonment of full employment, How the poor fared (badly), Whatever happened to industrial democracy?, Public expenditure: the retreat from Keynes, and so on.

Certainly the story of the 1974 Labour government is a dismal one. And when driven to a general election in 1979, the Labour Party presented itself as the safe, sane, moderate, conservative party. James Callaghan had no new policies to offer. He didn’t even seriously pretend to have any. He put himself across as ‘the best conservative prime minister we have’.

In the preceding five years nothing had been done to attempt to control the economy in the interests of working people, let alone the ‘radical socialist measures’ promised in 1974.

There had, though, been some changes. The Labour Party leaders had publicly ditched their commitment to curb unemployment by government action. When the Labour Party took office in February 1974 unemployment stood at half a million. When they were defeated in the election of March 1979 it was getting on for one and a half million.

‘We used to believe,’ prime minister James Callaghan told the 1976 Labour Party Conference, ‘that you could spend your way out of a recession by increasing government expenditure ... Now we know that isn’t true.’ It was of course the Labour right, not the left, that had argued for years that full employment was possible under capitalism – by manipulating government expenditure in the fashion advocated by the economist Keynes. This was their main argument for what they called ‘the mixed economy’. Now they junked it – not just in words but in deeds.

‘The toughest monetary policy yet seen was pursued by Callaghan and Healey ...’ wrote the right-wing commentator Peter Zentner, ‘... they were successful, unemployment shot up to a new post-war record of 1,635,000.’

The Labour government’s ‘Social Contract’ – a deal between government, employers and unions which thousands of workers knew as the Social Con-Trick – was carried through with the indispensable aid of the trade union leaders, including those of the left such as Hugh Scanlon of the engineers, Jack Jones of the transport workers, and Lawrence Daly of the miners’ union. As professional intermediaries between workers and employers, trade union officials stand at the heart of reformism. On behalf of their members they not only signed the Social Contract, but saw to it that their members observed its restrictions on wages.

The Social Contract achieved for the capitalist class what no Tory government has achieved within living memory. Average real earnings of working people were cut. Under a Labour government and with the full agreement of the trade union leaders, average real earnings fell by 2 per cent in 1975–6 and by 4 per cent in 1976–7.

No previous Tory government had managed to cut real earnings for employed workers since 1945 – and neither did the Tories under Margaret Thatcher in the six years 1979–85. The government of Edward Heath had fallen in its attempt to do so. So here was Labour acting as an alternative government, succeeding for British capitalism where its own parties had failed.

Of course it couldn’t last. Eventually the trade union leaders, left and right, couldn’t hold their members down any more. The wave of strikes in the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978–9 reversed the downward trend in real earnings.

The honeymoon was over for the Labour government. The massive demoralisation that its own actions had created among its working-class supporters led to its defeat in the general election of May 1979 and Margaret Thatcher’s victory. The Labour Party got the lowest share of the vote in any major election since 1931: 36.9 percent or 11,532,148 votes, compared to the 1966 figure of 47.9 per cent or 13,064,951 votes from a smaller electorate.

The struggle of the Labour left

BETWEEN THE LABOUR PARTY’S election defeat in May 1979 and its conference in September 1981 there was the biggest swing to the left in the party for a generation or more.

In September 1979 old-guard left-wing MP Ian Mikardo wrote:

‘Callaghan has let us down, has let his own people down, has let the working class down; Healey has shut our local school and our local hospital; and why are there no jobs for our children when they leave school? ... the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as they do under Tory governments ... our supporters expect it [from the Tories] but when it is organised by a Denis Healey, they feel let down and angry about it.’

No doubt at all Mikardo had caught and expressed the mood of Labour Party activists. His diagnosis of ‘what went wrong’ also fitted that mood.

‘Our problem isn’t that we don’t have good policies, it is that our policies don’t get implemented. We had very good policies in our manifesto of October 1974, but the Wilson/Callaghan governments turned their backs on them.’

This mood affected even Labour MPs. So in November 1980 Michael Foot, the candidate of the left, defeated right-winger Denis Healey in the election of the leader of the Labour Party. But the lefts were not satisfied. Now led by Tony Benn (who had stayed in Callaghan’s cabinet to the end but now put himself at the head of the left revival), they concentrated on the ‘constitutional issues’. There were three they thought essential: they wanted election of the party leader and his deputy by an ‘electoral college’ of representatives of local parties, trade unions and MPs at party conference instead of by MPs alone; they wanted re-selection of all Labour MPs by the local parties before every election; and they wanted conference control of the election manifesto.

The fight for these constitutional changes dominated the Labour Party conferences of 1979, 1980 and a special conference held at Wembley in January 1981, and the first two changes were actually won.

The Labour left was ecstatic. ‘Wembley was a famous victory for the workers’ movement,’ said Socialist Challenge (later renamed Socialist Action). ‘A watershed for Labour Party democracy’, said Tribune. ‘Wembley was a great victory for Labour’s ranks ... With the transformation and retransformation of trade unions they will play an even bigger part within the Labour Party. The block vote of the union delegations at Labour Party Conference will become a vital transmission belt for the demands of an aroused and militant working class,’ said Militant.

Successes for the left certainly, although hardly so radical as they were represented.

That summer was dominated, for Labour Party members, by the great ‘Benn for Deputy’ campaign. Tony Benn ran, under the new rules, against Denis Healey for deputy leader of the Labour Party. He would not, in spite of repeated challenges, run for the leadership against Michael Foot (who backed Healey). Still, enormous enthusiasm was generated around the campaign. Come the conference Benn lost by a whisker. That seemed to be a turning point against the left.

But the real turning point had come earlier, outside the Labour Party.

In November 1979 Michael Edwardes, the Labour-appointed boss of British Leyland, sacked the convenor of the company’s Longbridge plant, Derek Robinson. Edwardes got away with it largely because the engineering union leadership refused to sanction action on Robinson’s behalf. It was a serious defeat for shop-floor militants everywhere. Then came the defeat of the steelworkers after a bitter 13-week strike in 1980, and of the civil servants the following year. The role of the trade union leaders, who consistently looked for compromise instead of backing their members solidly in the fight against the uncompromising attack by the Tory government and the employers, played a crucial role in these and other defeats.

These defeats had political consequences, causing a further shift rightwards – or at best a shift into apathy – among the mass of trade unionists.

In March 1981 some of the worst rascals from the Labour right – Shirley Williams, David Owen, Bill Rogers, Roy Jenkins and others – split from the Labour Party and set up the SDP, with unprecedented media coverage and support. The Labour left, understandably and correctly, took the view ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’. They thought that the split would strengthen them against the right inside the party.

Indeed it would have done if the Labour Party had been a campaigning, fighting socialist party, willing to stand up against reaction regardless of temporary unpopularity. But Labour is an electoral party, first and last. If Labour cannot win elections, it is nothing.

There followed the Warrington by-election. Roy Jenkins, a middle-class, claret-drinking, right-wing former president of the Common Market Commission and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, stood as SDP candidate in an overwhelmingly working-class constituency against Labour’s Doug Hoyle, a trade union official who had supported Tony Benn’s campaign inside the party. Jenkins got 42.4 per cent of the vote (a massive increase on the 9 per cent won by the Liberals in 1979) and cut the Labour vote from 61.6 per cent in 1979, the year of Thatcher’s election victory, to 48.4 per cent.

The SDP split in fact strengthened the right within the Labour Party. Hoyle afterwards reported to Labour’s shadow cabinet that Tony Benn’s candidature for the deputy leadership ‘had proved a major and recurring problem in his campaign’. Pressure was put on Benn by his union allies not to run again for deputy leader when Michael Foot retired. He agreed at a meeting of top party and trade union leaders in Bishops Stortford in January 1982.

Throughout this period the press had been running a consistent and hostile campaign against the Labour left. Socialists, of course, take for granted the hostility of the media. It belongs to the employing class and represents their interests. It will always be hostile to workers and to their struggles, as the coverage given to the 1984-5 miners’ strike showed.

The effect of this media hostility, however, depends on circumstances, on the level of struggle, on the scale and effectiveness of socialist agitation in the workplaces. This too was shown during the miners’ strike. Where the miners’ struggle was strong and solid, the media’s hostility merely served to expose the media’s own bias. Only where the strike itself was weak did the media attacks undermine it.

But significant sections of the Labour left don’t see it this way. Their main focus is not on workers’ struggle but on winning elections, whether inside the party or outside, and as long as they tie themselves to electoral ambitions, to the idea that electing Labour MPs and a Labour government is the main way forward, then they must heed ‘public opinion’. The management of public opinion by the capitalist press is therefore central.

Seeing the press campaign against them, the left soon concluded they had been ‘too extreme’, ‘too divisive’. Their retreat was signalled the day after Denis Healey beat Tony Benn for the deputy leadership by that tiny percentage vote. That day the combined right and ‘soft left’ won a majority on the party’s national executive. An inquiry was set up to investigate the Militant tendency within the party which was later to lead to the expulsion of members of its paper’s editorial board.

Worse was to follow. When Thatcher seized her opportunity to wage a successful imperialist war in the South Atlantic over the Falkland Islands, Michael Foot committed the party to support it. Only a handful of prominent Labour people opposed it (including Tony Benn, to his credit) and even this opposition was pacifistic and legalistic rather than internationalist in most cases. Of course the Falklands war enormously strengthened Thatcher. That same year came the betrayal and defeat of the Health Service workers.

Next came the disastrous Bermondsey by-election of February 1983 – the unfortunate and viciously witch-hunted Peter Tatchell being made the scapegoat for Labour’s defeat – and, decisively, the general election of June 1983. In 1983, the year which had the lowest number of strike days in Britain since 1942, the Thatcher government routed the Labour Party, in spite of mass unemployment, savage cuts and general attacks on the working class. The Labour vote fell to 28.3 per cent – the lowest share of the poll since 1918.

The shift of the ex-lefts to the right became a gallop. True, Neil Kinnock, the ‘left’ candidate, beat Roy Hattersley of the right for leader in the autumn under the new electoral college procedure, but Kinnock, even more than Foot and Wilson before him, had already made it clear that he was a ‘safe man’. Most of the left backed him though, concentrating their efforts on an unsuccessful attempt to get Michael Meacher, an even less plausible ‘left’, in as deputy leader. The stage was set for a sharp swing to the right.

The miners’ strike interrupted this temporarily – it forced the Labour Party leaders to trim, manoeuvre and try to face both ways. Now that is over, it is full speed and hard right.

The policy statement Jobs and Industry, published in April 1985, sets the pattern.

‘The most remarkable thing about Labour’s new policy document’, noted The Guardian, ‘is what is not in it. No widespread re-nationalisation. No compulsory planning agreements with companies. No re-introduction of exchange controls. No multi-billion reflation to make the City run scared. No instant solution to the four million without proper jobs ... Much of it could be sampled by Tory wets or the Alliance without indigestion ... More contentious, but still within the centrist pole, is a National Investment Bank financed by some of the £50 billion of investment money tint has gone walkabout since the abolition of exchange controls in 1979. This money would not be forced back to Britain but “attracted” by tax advantages too great to ignore.’

Tax advantages too great to ignore! Britain as a super-Singapore, Lichtenstein or the Cayman Islands. That is the future Kinnock offers us – and the man is still in opposition.

Re-selection of MPs and candidates has also reflected the right-ward shift. Of the sixty or so re-selection conferences held up to April 1985, not one resulted in the elimination of a sitting MP who stood for re-selection! Of course there are bound to be some ‘left advances’ but it is already clear that the bulk of the Labour candidates of the near future will be convinced supporters of Kinnock and Hattersley. And those who are not will be subject to the enormous pull of ‘unity’ behind Kinnock as a general election draws nearer.

It is the same story with that other strategy of the post-1979 Labour left, the capture and use of local government. ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone became a national figure after winning the leadership of the GLC in 1981. Various left councils have introduced useful measures. Though many of these have been pretty tokenistic, there are the rather more solid achievements of South Yorkshire in the field of cheap public transport and Liverpool in the fields of jobs and housing.

But what happened when the government counter-attacked with abolition of the Metropolitan Councils and the imposition of rate-capping? The campaign against abolition has been conducted, especially in London, with a heavy emphasis on the support of Tory dissidents – with large posters showing Ted Heath and Francis Pym asking ‘Are they extremists?’ Then came the spectacular turnabout by Livingstone on rate-capping. The ‘solid front’ of twenty-four rate-capped Labour councils who were pledged to stand united in defiance of the government was breached when ‘Red Ken’ himself persuaded the Inner London Education Authority to set a legal rate and the GLC (by far the biggest of the lot) followed suit. Within weeks most of the other councils had done likewise. Ken Livingstone was duly rewarded with the parliamentary candidature for the safe Labour seat of Brent East. Kinnock declared: ‘I will be happy to work with him.’

The Labour left of a few years ago has largely collapsed into Kinnock’s arms. Why? Because whatever their differences with the right, the vast majority of them believe as firmly as the right in electoralism and the ‘parliamentary road’. All the talk about ‘extra-parliamentary action’ which many of them used to engage in (sincerely in some cases) was strictly subordinated to electoral activity.

Once it became clear to them that left-wing ideas are not, at present, electorally popular, most of them galloped to the right. The Labour Co-ordinating Committee, once Tony Benn’s fan club, now work with right-wingers against Militant. The ‘hard left’ is smaller every day; Tony Benn an isolated figure.

This rightward trend has undoubtedly been strengthened as a result of the outcome of the miners’ strike and the revival of the Labour Party’s vote shown in successive opinion polls. Anyone rocking that boat is likely to get short shrift from the right and from a big proportion of yesterday’s lefts. The possibility of a Labour government, or a Labour-dominated coalition, has a growing appeal to a large number of workers partly on healthy anti-Tory grounds, partly because memories of Labour in power are fading – and the youngest voters (overwhelmingly the most pro-Labour group according to the polls) have little if any recollection of previous betrayals.

The witch-hunting of the Militant tendency is an important symptom of the trend. Far from ‘the block vote of the union delegations at Labour Party Conference’ becoming ‘a vital transmission belt for the demands of an aroused and militant working class’, the block vote to be cast by the public employees’ union NUPE, which is a model ‘left’ union, is being lined up with the right to kick the supporters of Militant out of the Labour Party. Militant is being persecuted to prove to the floating voters and to the opinion-formers of the capitalist press that the Labour Party is a ‘safe’ alternative to Margaret Thatcher.

A new Labour government?

WHAT CAN BE EXPECTED from a new Labour government? Not socialism, of course. Neil Kinnock and company are not talking about socialism even now, in opposition. Nor do we hear from them yesterday’s promises of ‘a massive and irreversible shift in the distribution of both wealth and power’. That is far too radical.

What is promised is a ‘moderate’ alternative to Thatcherism. In reality, in terms of economic policy, more of the same. Thatcherism did not start with Thatcher, but with the policies of Callaghan and Healey. It is a response to the needs of British capitalism in this period of capitalist crisis. In office, the Labour Party has always served the needs of the capitalist system. The rhetoric would be different from Thatcher’s; the substance would be the same.

The evidence is plain to see, not just in Labour’s past record but in the actions taken by left-wing governments elsewhere in the past few years. The Mitterrand government in France was elected in 1981 on a much more radical platform than anything the Labour Party would remotely contemplate. In practice it has proved a reliable, right-wing administrator of French capitalism, pursuing economic policies similar to those of Thatcher in Britain.

Consider the most recent example, New Zealand. ‘In its exhilarating dash for economic freedom,’ writes the right-wing weekly The Economist, ‘Mr David Lange’s Labour government has floated the exchange rate and terminated all exchange controls. It intends to introduce a value-added tax on everything, including food, and to cut income tax across the board. This Labour government is also dismantling one of the oldest and most crippling welfare states in the world.’ (They mean ‘most crippling’ for the capitalist economy, of course. All these measures are of greatest benefit to the well-off.)

With minor variations, the pattern is repeated by the Hawke government in Australia, Gonsalvez in Spain, Soares in Portugal. The crisis of modern capitalism, and the structural changes within it, have made Keynesian-style reformist policies obsolete.

It is clear from the record that the election of a Labour government in no way guarantees benefits for the working class, let alone advance towards socialism. The working class may have won benefits when Labour governments were in office: the welfare state set up in the years after 1945 is probably the best example. But the Labour government of 1974–9 was just as willing to cut back that welfare state, when the needs of British capitalism demanded this, as its predecessor had been to set it up.

A Labour government committed to working within the capitalist system is dependent on the willingness, or unwillingness, of the capitalist class to make concessions. As we have seen, capitalism was willing to concede the most stringent price controls for the Churchill wartime coalition – but dug its heels in when Labour’s Harold Wilson wanted but a shadow of Churchill’s powers (and that in return for tight controls on wages). Likewise, when the system was booming in the 1950s workers were able to win an increasing standard of living under a Tory government.

But capitalism is no mutual benefit society. The record shows that these concessions have to be fought for. Employers may have been willing to grant rising wages because of the boom of the 1950s, but these had to be won – and were won – through a high level of shop-floor trade union organisation and militancy. The welfare state and the gains of 1945–51 were the result, not of the election of the Labour government under Attlee, but of the mass radicalisation that followed the second world war. The capitalist class made these concessions not because ‘Mr Attlee’ had been elected prime minister, but because they feared the strength and militancy of the working class.

The same applies to more recent history. It was a miners’ strike, not the actions of Labour MPs in parliament (left or otherwise), that forced the removal of Tory prime minister Ted Heath from office, along with the statutory wage freeze he had been trying to impose. The miners’ strike was but one sign of a very high level of working-class militancy: the previous two years had seen a national strike by building workers, a wave of factory occupations by engineering workers and mass unofficial strike action against the government’s anti-union laws. And it was the lack of that high level of militancy that allowed Callaghan, two years later, to cut working-class earnings where Heath had failed.

The key to working-class advance lies not with the election of Labour governments nor with a Labour Party tied to the apron strings of parliamentary electoralism. It lies in the strength and activity of the working class itself.

The defence of working-class interests in the here and now, and the carrying forward of that struggle to the overthrow of capitalism, requires a different kind of party, a party rooted in the workplaces and the unions and in all manner of grassroots activity. It means building a party that does not say, ‘vote for us and we will solve your problems’ but says ‘you can only solve your problems by fighting for your interests and those of other working people’, a party that exists to co-ordinate and develop these struggles and direct them towards the seizure of power by the working class – and to hell with the ‘constitution’. A party that is internationalist. That is what the Socialist Workers Party is all about.

A great many genuinely left-wing Labour supporters will not go this far at present. Very well. We work with them wherever there is a basis for agreement. We support them against the right. We even support the Labour Party against the Tories until we are in a position to replace it.

But in no case do we pander to the illusions that Labour is anything but a conservative workers’ party. In no case do we give any credence to the repeatedly disproved fantasy that the Labour Party leopard can change its spots. A new party has to be built on a different basis. It will be a long, tough struggle with many ups and downs, but it is the only way forward.

Note by MIA

1. This pamphlet contains two articles: The General Strike by Chris Harman and The CP and the General Strike by Duncan Hallas.

Last updated on 24.11.2013