Over a year ago, I read Simon Hannah’s book, “A Party with Socialists in it, a history of the Labour Left.” I found it fascinating, informative, and well-paced. I read the 1st edition[1],  which unlike the later edition is missing the final chapter on the 2019 election and the fall of Corbyn. I made some notes; this article is an effective review but driven by the structure of the book which is a chronology.

In the immediate closing stages and post war period, I am curious if there was a debate within the Labour Party over the UK intervention in Greece and whether Labour’s left stood with EAM. While Hannah speaks of the mutiny in Egypt over demobilisation, our family stories are of the RAF mutiny in India which was also about demobilisation and the Government’s desire to keep a strong [white] military in India to ensure that any political progress on Indian independence was “appropriately supervised”. I wonder also whether there was a debate on Indian independence with the Labour Party, either in Parliament or at Conference.

I was curious that it was a Labour Govt., that took eyes and teeth out of the NHS to fund the Korean War and that when Bevan, after a career as a socialist, and the architect of the NHS was moved to Shadow Foreign Secretary, he discovered[2] an Atlanticism that no-one had noticed before. While disappointing we should remember that, while today the US influence in Europe is expressed through NATO and its recent “out of theatre operations”, in the 1950’s their sacrifice as allies, neighbours and funders of the Marshall plan was much more recent, obvious, and valued. It was much easier to be an Atlanticist. Times seem to have changed in that then they didn’t expel Bevan because of impending election, this current bunch of fools seem to think that being tough with the left will help.

However perhaps the critical lesson in the failure of Bevanism is, as Hannah says,

Although Bevanism as a mood and a movement was always larger than one man … it ultimately allowed itself to become defined by the whims of the King of Tredegar. The collapse of Bevanism provides one of the most salutary and essential lessons to the Labour left – never rely on a single leader, especially one with the extraordinary pressure of parliamentary politics bearing down on them.

A couple of pages[3] later, Hannah turns to the aftermath of the 1959 election and the sense of despair that class politics was over, a feeling that was to be repeated in 2015. One of the results of the resulting introspection in the Party was that it laid the groundwork to lose the Robbins generation. The opening of the Universities to ‘all those who could benefit from it’ led to a new half-a-generation of graduates, children of the working classes and children of war veterans, with hopes of using their education to continue to make life better for their communities, but with expectations of a middle-class life; Labour, strangely, and more particularly the Unions had little room for them in their movement. Many drifted off, and then voted for Thatcher in 1979. It’s curious that Hannah notes Crosland’s comments[4] on property, as today 70 years later, this is one of the signposts of the essential divide in politics.

During the 50’s row on unilateralism, Gaitskill in declaring the independence of MPs from their CLPs raises[5] the arguments of Burkism, and not for the first time. People join the party, give time and pay & raise money to get people elected; somewhere there’s an implicit promise that the MPs or councillors will do what the members want but Labour’s history suggests that most MPs do not agree, like the debt they feel they owe their voters, it’s just their judgement. It’s arrogant offensive nonsense.

My recollection from the student movement in the mid to late 70’s was that Troops Out Movement[6] was dominated by Trotskyists, mainly the IMG & SWP with an emphasis on Now, not Out[7]. It’s interesting that Hannah notes the silence of Benn & Tribune; there can be no doubt about the massive interest taken by MI5 and special branch. I wouldn’t want to seek to turn the book into a conspiracy theory about the nature of the security state in managing the Labour Party, but the facts are what they are.

The rise of racism and immigration[8] became significant factors in British politics in the late ‘60s and illustrate the disgraceful ideas and actions of the Labour Government, with, from within the Cabinet, only George Thomas opposing. I note again the silence of Benn and Tribune. The biggest lesson is that Labour’s anti-racism is less than a full fronted commitment. Today it’s called listening to legitimate concerns and ignored via the Forde Report but chasing or reassuring racist votes whether their issue is multi-culturalism, Islamophobia, economics or Brexit, Labour and socialists must have nothing to do with it. Psephologically Labour’s right argues we should be more careful but brutally they are trading white racist votes for black and Asian votes yet when we lose elections in Harrow, Tower Hamlets and Bolton and even coming close in Batley and Spen, this is not seen for what it is.

This is said about the 1970 defeat[9],

The flagging end of the first Wilson government revealed a revisionist party, wholly reliant on Keynesian demand management, trapped in an economic straitjacket that provoked working class resistance while undermining its own ability to implement more progressive social-economic policies. Around 200,000 members left the party during this period. Ken Livingstone described the experience of joining in 1968 as being like ‘a rat who was boarding a sinking ship’. Wilson still hoped to win in 1970 – in some polls he was even 7 points ahead on the eve of the election – but he was defeated by Ted Heath … As Crossman commented in his diary about the collapse in support from the Labour electorate, “We have given them three years of hell and high taxes. They have seen the failure of devaluation and felt the soaring cost of living’. Labour had alienated its own voting base.

This sounds pretty spot on and of course contains lessons for today.

In 1970, I seem to remember that Roy Jenkins, Labour’s Chancellor made unhelpful speeches on taxes and debt, a tradition to be followed by John Smith in ’92, Ed Balls in ’15[10] and by Rachel Reeves today.

In the context of Wilson’s first government[11] and its national plan, the book references Foot calling for exchange controls[12], these were still in place as I remember my father carefully planning the family’s foreign currency allowance so we could holiday abroad in Europe. Thatcher finally abolished them in 1979 but MacMillan kept them in place in 1961.

Hannah also argues that on Wilson assuming power in 1964, since there was only four vote majority in the House, it was the left, possibly influenced by misplaced memories of Wilson’s left wing instincts that had to compromise on discipline. It’s a bit before my time, so my memory of this period is weak. I don’t remember there being an alternative left programme. In fact, one of the reasons that both the CP via their Broad Lefts and the Militant became so strong was that they understood their politics, they read and debated; most ordinary Labour members were not equipped or interested enough to do the work and participate in such arguments; little change there then. Politics in the Labour Party has been reduced to “winning elections is all it takes”, and any criticism of the leadership makes that harder. It’s hypocritical nonsense that the people saying this today had no such inhibitions during Corbyn’s leadership. The misplaced faith in Wilson is another example of investing too much hope in one person.

I find the book’s take on the Alternative Economic Strategy[13] interesting. Hannahs suggests its supporters demonised transnational[14] companies and that the AES required an alliance with British capital. If so, this was obviously mistaken[15] and not just on the grounds of socialist analysis; recent history has shown that British Capital is lazy, dilettante with penchant for investing in totalitarian states. The arguments for further nationalisations, (the top 25[16]) bearing in mind what was already owned can be seen as a variant of French dirigisme which is of course not a socialist model but is certainly an alternative to the UK’s state capitalism[17]. Import controls were part of the plan to stop (or reduce) the impact of demand reflation sucking in imports. Dirigisme and autarky are not socialist, but this was a coherent alternative to cuts, unemployment and wage suppression. In fact, on re-reading what is said, it is recognised that the AES was a powerful, if still reformist initiative which was ignored by the PLP, because they could.

Holland, the AES’s author stated that the post war state had developed a ‘Bonapartist’ character. Is there a quote[18], because, looking back, I don’t see it that way. An essential part of Bonapartism is the support of the army and police for the radical government; the example of Chile[19], which the book claims British socialists thought an unlikely template for the UK. The fictional work, “A very British coup” suggests that support from the army/police was unlikely although Tim Mcinnerny’s MI5 officer was a prescient piece of writing.

With respect to Wilson’s masterful management of the Party over the EU, it’s fascinating that the book poses the argument as “sovereignty and a socialist programme vs trade and jobs”, with Labour’s voters choosing trade and jobs, nothing changes it seems, certainly not the Left’s ability to learn from its defeats. In the ‘70’s the memories of war veterans were more current and listened to. Many if not most war veterans saw the EEC as a peace project, if only between Germany and France, whose three wars had culminated in WW2. Wilson wanted to keep the Party together, continuing to pursue, what he saw as the cost-free accommodations identified in the book and had to allow the rag-bag of dissidents to campaign as they chose, in alliance, even then, with the racists opposing[20] the EEC. The decision to allow MPs to split on this issue is a precedent that’s caused great damage to the Party relegating the concepts of intra-party unity exclusively to elections. This can be seen by the behaviour of the PLP over the coalition’s “Alternate Vote” referendum and the behaviour of the “Lexit” MPs from both left and right in the 2017 Parliament.

I say, somewhere, in there is a strange and disconnected policy between the Labour left and defence, that melange of pacificism and today a strange inheritance of pro-Soviet feeling for the modern Russian state. It makes a proper debate on what defence policy should be difficult. The book’s story is from 1900 to today but from 1940 to 1951 Labour was a war time and post war government. Why is it we i.e. the Left always counterpose defence with the NHS and fail to remember that 1944 election victory was on top of the [conscripted] armed forces vote.

While observing Benn’s quiescence during Wilson’s administrations, it is rightly, in my opinin observed[21], that Benn was not a socialist, Hannah writes,

Benn’s commitment to socialism was uniquely esoteric British vision. His version of a socialist society was really one of greater democracy, greater worker involvement in industry, and a more accountable political class. All fine things though they added up to a curious mix of radical liberal values and workers’ control. Benn’s socialism was redolent of an older radical tradition dating back to the Levellers in the English Civil War – popular democracy – in a speech to the PLP in 1980 Benn outlined his chief concern over the ‘blockages to parliamentary democracy’, citing four major obstacles – the European Community, the IMF, the House of Lords and American military bases stationed in the UK. There was a class argument in there somewhere, but it always presented itself as a demand for genuine national sovereignty, leaving out the question of the capitalist class more generally. Why was the City of London not also one of the major obstacles?

The term “parliament cretinism” could almost have been crafted to describe Tony Benn; Wikipedia quotes, in the words of Friedrich Engels:

‘Parliamentary cretinism’ is an incurable disease, an ailment whose unfortunate victims are permeated by the lofty conviction that the whole world, its history and its future are directed and determined by a majority of votes of just that very representative institution that has the honour of having them in the capacity of its members.

I agree, that in Benn’s case it was wrapped in 17th century mysticism, a worship of the mother of Parliaments, despite its snail like pace in moving towards a reasonable 20th Century representative assembly. The more one looks at Engel’s words, the more clearly one can so easily believe that Benn’s approval of parliamentary democracy was linked to his membership of its parliament, an institution he had fought harder than most to join.

After Benn’s run for Deputy Leader, he wound up the campaign committee, it’s interesting that Lansman agreed, while Audrey Wise was against. Who knows what would have happened if they’d kept it in place. It is suggested[22] in the book that arguments on strategy had already started. It would probably have ended up like the Labour Co-ordinating Committee or what Momentum became forty years later, but without the database, just an empty shell with a left-wing veneer.

I also take issue with the book over Labour’s position[23] on the Falkland’s War. Benn’s insistence on UN mediation isolated the PLP from the tsunami of jingoism that erupted in the UK at the time. Labour voter’s opposition to mediation can be summed up by one contemporary observer, “there’s only one thing that military dictators understand”[24]. We should also remember that Thatcher’s premiership was on the line; the PLP played its hand very poorly and being allowed to be portrayed as anti-task force was bad politics. The quoted contemporary observer above also said, Foot should have said, “not under your leadership”. His goal should have been the fall of Thatcher’s government as well as that of the Argentine junta.

Militant’s[25] short term control of NOLS[26] is mentioned. This lasted for just two years. Their opponents were based on the Labour fraction of the NUS Broad Left, allies of the Communist Party, who organised as Clause 4, or the Clause 4 group. The name ‘operation ice pick’, which may have been used was strongly deprecated by 1976 when I joined it. C4 supported[27] the AES , opposed remaining in the EU and supported the Tribune Group. I think that characterising them as right wing is harsh. One of the problems for them is that very few had worked and Clause IV’s connections with both Unions and workers was limited. It’s a long time ago and many of its leading lights ended up a long way from where they were then, with some notable exceptions.

It is noted[28] that in dealing with the Liverpool Militant, the accusations of violence were ignored; things haven’t changed, the internal culture of the Labour Party is disgusting and all efforts to make things better have been wrecked by factionalism. It would seem that Regional office staff and the GLU are ignoring complaints of bullying, data protection breaches, theft, harassment and even assault.

When looking at Kinnock’s second loss, Labour’s research[29] was still blaming the winter of discontent; I believe this is right. In 1978/79, the British people had a look at what Soviet Britain looked like and didn’t like it, those memories lasted a generation. Another factor is that Labour was still recovering from the vote haemorrhage of the 1983 election and the damage caused by the SDP split.  Although in the same paragraph we are reminded that Socialist Organiser was banned at the same time as the Black Sections; today, we have autonomous black organisations with GC and EC representation[30] but the AWL, the successors of Socialist Organiser have been banned again.

The book rightly comments on the irony of the source of the ideas of both OMOV for the leader and primary style registered supporters[31] introduced by the Collins Review. But just as registered supporters were championed by the right, they were the first of the Collins reforms to go as the Labour right rolled back the democratic advances implemented by the 2018 Democracy Review. I thought it seemed a good idea, that any leader would be tested in the same way as would be needed for an election, but it seems outside the US, it’s not such a good idea; it didn’t serve the PS in France well and our experiences in the UK, with both Corbyn and now Truss, is that a Prime Minister needs a stronger mandate than the vote of a 200,000 (or even 500,000) person party. We should note that the bureaucracy prohibited Registered Supporters from attending meetings before the election result was finished thus weakening unready CLPs’ ability to engage with them.

On the decline of Momentum, which started much earlier than many consider; the book looks[32] at Lansman’s coup in which he gave in to the witch-hunting tsunami, launched by Watson and his allies, by firstly turning off Momentum’s democracy, and then two years later supporting a disgraceful coup in Lewisham Momentum, removing the AWL from the leadership of Lewisham Momentum by supporting an ex-Worker’s Power diaspora. Rumour has it that Lansman might well have gone the other way i.e allying with Workers Liberty to reinforce the office’s power against the ‘tankie’ northwestern caucus, themselves supported by elements of Unite. What needs to be considered, is that Momentum was frightened that they themselves would be proscribed. I think as well that Lansman thinking himself the cleverest guy in the room, for which there is much evidence, felt he much to offer the movement, firstly as an NEC member and then as a candidate for GS. There is much to record on that part of Labour’s history, particularly the destruction of his relationship with Pete Willsman and the CLPD. He may have been a better GS than Formby, or he like her and Corbyn would have been ground down and worn out by the full court press of Labour’s right wing.

Throughout the book, Hannah keeps his eye on the prize of what differentiates the Left from what he calls the integrationists, which is workers control of industry, he writes,

…  changing the corporate structures through nationalisation or having more workers on the board of directors doesn’t alter the fundamental problem that in a capitalist market economy the primary way to compete is through increasing the exploitation of the workforce, inevitably reducing working conditions and pay. The left advocated protecting British business interests through state ownership and not in reality genuine workers control, only workers participation in management decisions, …

This pointed to an existential problem for the left strategy – it relied on promoting private sector growth (through the NEB, investment, etc.) to create jobs, with nationalisation as a way of prompting the rest of the private sector to do better. Yet the left also promoted workers’ rights and greater social equality- the very factors that disincentivised private sector investment. No wonder capitalists are more interested in exporting capital abroad, where there were fewer labour laws and weaker trade unions. Additionally, the reliance on import controls would only have the effects of exporting unemployment and poverty abroad and- ludicrously- the labour left argued they did not think Britain putting up import controls would encourage other countries to do so.

I argue above that the AES was a form of ‘dirigisme’ and clearly not an attempt to communalise the ownership of the means of production. It is admirable that Hannah maintains workers control as a socialist key demand, but how we have a planned economy with workplace-based worker’s control I am unsure. It is one of the unanswered questions for the socialist left.

Apart from the failure to develop a governance model for publicly owned corporations, nationalisation is a problem for the Labour Party, not just because we don’t have a satisfactory governance model, but also the workforce is on the whole better educated than it was in 1945, and the working class now have a greater stake in the private sector, not so much through Thatcher’s vision of a shareholding democracy but through the privatisation of pensions. The forty year squeeze on the state pension has led to the growth of 2nd private pensions which have a large stake holding in the UK stock exchanges or at least in sterling quoted stocks. This creates a large constituency wanting fair compensation in the case of nationalisation; although let us remember that some, let’s say Railtrack shareholders, were equally keen that unfair compensation was to be paid. It’s a clever piece of design that while much of the working class now depend on their ownership of the private sector, they don’t get to vote the shares.

As a side quest, it has become clear as centre-right governments have given failing businesses massive safety-net grants, that the principle of “no public money, without a public stake’ should be paramount in designing any ‘rescue’ packages.  

Sadly, it all reinforces questions of why, if a left winger, we still bother with the Labour Party?  This disgraceful catalogue of the behaviour of Labour’s right wing over the decades just reinforces the question as to why we persist. I know that it’s the loyalty of the voters to the Labour label, but Labour’s historic attitude towards the left really makes one ask if this can be sustained, particularly under this current leadership. Certainly, the argument that PR may lead to Labour splitting gives me no fear although after both the SDP and the Tinge we can be confident that the right will not be walking out again.

  • [1] I read the 1st edition, and my page references in these notes correspond to that edition.
  • [2] Pages 106 – 108
  • [3] Page 110 A class that no longer exists.
  • [4] Page 111 – it is argued he thought that arguments over wealth were over.
  • [5] Page 114
  • [6] Page 132
  • [7] Did the CP start something in contrast to TOM and it might be interesting to consider the position of the Official IRA as they walked away from violence towards a political class struggle, but the book is telling a different story.
  • [8] Page 133
  • [9] Page 136 – Although I sometime wonder whether in fact the British people give parties a 15 year mandate and that Wilson lost against mandate; he came back in 1974.
  • [10] Ed Miliband had been captured by Labour’s monetarists by 2015 but I am not sure I agree with the book to the extent he colluded with this. My memory is that he was beaten at the 2014 NPF meeting and couldn’t recover.
  • [11] Page 124
  • [12] Page 126
  • [13] Page 145
  • [14] How new was the idea that Capital was transnational, the pinnacle of manufacturing, defence and cars were still nationally located. It’s one of the reasons the Left were so poor on international trade, a truly dreadful gap which among other things failed to observe the neo-colonial relationship between the UK and its trading partners.
  • [15] but the plan was precursor of Hutton’s ideas when he contrasted Anglo-Saxon capitalism with Germany in particular
  • [16] The top 25 were designed to act as a planning focus, it was one per SIC.
  • [17] I don’t really want to get into an argument on what state capitalism is, but I think we can all agree that the Morrisonian corporation is not a socialist endeavour.
  • [18] Page 146
  • [19] Page 148
  • [20] Enoch Powell opposed the EEC.
  • [21] Page 170
  • [22] Page 172
  • [23] Page 176
  • [24] Actually, he was also out of step, there was a huge wave of how dare they, with more than a hint of racism. The country wanted a military intervention to assuage its wounded pride. We can see that today with the debate on Ukraine.
  • [25] Page 142 deals with the growth and history of the Militant
  • [26] Page 190
  • [27] It also supported the liberation movements in Iberia and Africa, worked towards a pro-Palestinian position, at a time when this was exceedingly unpopular as the Palestinians were still engaged in armed struggle.
  • [28] P192
  • [29] P195
  • [30] Weakened at Conference 23
  • [31] P227
  • [32] P232
A party with socialists in it
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