This is our truth, tell us yours
When I first became active in the Labour Party the sense of theatrical disputes between left and right, between activists and apparatchiks, was clear, and biting, like ozone in the seaside air on a winter’s day.
That was three decades and more ago. The stage on which disputes were acted out was party conference, as the tensions between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the wider Labour movement were made real in the struggle to change policy and gain or re-gain control of the manifesto. Those struggles even acquired their own literature, exemplified by Lewis Minkin’s doorstop of a tome studying Labour Party Conference.
The failure of the conference battles and a bout of chronic hero worship led the Labour left to try and act out its needs in Tony Benn’s futile attempt to win the deputy leadership and counterbalance the parliamentary party’s dominance via Michael Foot’s leadership. It replicated the same obsession with getting people who believed the right things into positions of power with the battle over mandatory reselection.
The parliamentary faction in Labour didn’t rest on their laurels. From the mid70s onwards they fought repeatedly to have anyone they deemed too left wing removed from the Labour Party. Their fightback culminated in Neil Kinnock, once a favourite of the Labour Left who claimed the mantle of Bevan, sealing his move to the right by expelling the Militant Tendency in 1985.
The Militant serve well to illustrate the folly, historically and today, of talking about the Labour left as if it’s a unified body. The Militant stood apart from the rest of the left, and many of the Labour left had no regrets when the obnoxious and self satisfied leaders of the Militant were defenestrated. The Labour Left was less a shared set of beliefs than a shared location where people with widely differing beliefs happened to be for awhile.
The driving force of the conference struggles of the 1970s was the belief, amongst trade union leaders, that they could shape Labour policy to their benefit. Once Thatcher was in power that imperative was abandoned; the trade union left imploded, not least because the Communist Party of Great Britain lost its way in a maze of Eurocomunism as the unions were drawn into a battle for survival. By the 1990s the left, and the unions, were ready to accept anyone who wasn’t a Tory so long as they promised to win an election.
All Tony Blair had to offer was that he wasn’t a Tory. Labour conference was transformed into an irrelevant party rally, policy was handed over to an opaque and hopeless policy forum, and control of the party slipped away from the NEC to a pseudo-professional system of boards and party managers that disguised the absolute power of the party leader. Patronage was everything; compliant regional directors ended up in the House of Lords as a reward for their service, for instance.
It is into this environment that the bulk of the current opponents of Jeremy Corbyn arrived, as beneficiaries of a system where traditional Labour structures had been eroded and replaced by informal networks that institutionalized patronage. The networks of party staff and elected politicians were deep, and powerful. General Secretaries couldsecure placesin Parliament for their offspring, while their personal assistants could dream of one day sitting on the parliamentary benches. Ambitious young men made their way to Labour Party HQ as the gateway to working for lobbying firms or being elected to office themselves.
The election of Corbyn was a brutal rejection of that system, and an attempt to substitute ideology for ambition. That Corbyn hiself was ideologically shallow, and nogreat thinker, reflected the fact that the left had become isolated within parliament, and irrelevant outside it. The extra parliamentary left was set free in part by the self destruction of the old sects who no longer had a monopoly of the means of production of political discourse; the first step for a new political faction is to set up a Facebook page, not try to find someone with a printing press for the inevitable theoretical journal and paper.
As soon as Corbyn won a leadership election gifted to him by Ed Milliband’s re-framing of the rules, the stage was set for the old enmities to be fought out again.The challenge this time was the same as the one that faced Labour right wingers in 1981; how could they keep the Labour brand and assets? The answer is the same now as then; they can’t, and they don’t have the courage to turn progress into a new party. Nor do they have a leader who can fight and win against Corbyn, who is patiently waiting for the publication of the Chilcott report that will re-write the reputations of an entire generation of Labour ministers who served under Blair.
Labour’s problem under Corbyn is the same as it has been since the death of Bevan. The Labour left is incoherent to the point of political illiteracy, prone to pursuing pasing ideas like a spaniel trying to catch butterflies. More than ever it needs to escape the Overton window of the past, where its outlook was shaped by the obsessions and ideologies of the sects, and swap its language of opposition for a language of optimism, setting out, as Bevan’s generation did, what a new welfare state might deliver. I’ll offer one thought. Just as Bevan’s generation defined and shaped a welfare state, so the left might adopt the language of the wellbeing state, a future where no-one is left behind, no-one made ill or fearful by the behaviour of others, no-one left awake at night wondering what lies ahead for themselves or their family. That way history might repeat itself not as tragedy or farce, but as a step forward that wins popular support. One fact that escapes most political historians is that in 1951, Labour lost the election but, after six years of the new welfare state, won half of the popular vote.Instea dof bickering over how to win over Mondeo Man or Worcester woman,Labour should be targetting such pre-eminence again.