There have been numerous commentators criticising Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party left’s ability to win a general election.
Most of these have come from the right both from within the Labour Party and outside of it. But they have also come from those advocating that the left should immerse itself within new radical coalitions with liberals and nationalists and essentially diminish its identity as an internationalist and working class force.
One of these writers, Jeremy Gilbert, rehashes the ideas that were earlier promoted by the Communist Party under Martin Jacques, which hacked to death the brilliant writings of Italian revolutionary Gramsci in promoting their ‘Post Fordism’ approach. (Jeremy Gilbert, “What hope for Labour and the left? The election, the 80s and ‘aspiration’”, OpenDemocracy). Gilbert criticises Benn and the ‘hard left’ for being “almost completely hostile to the idea that fundamental changes in the nature, scope, technologies and institutions of global capitalism were going to have any significant political implications.”
Instead of fighting against the destruction of jobs in the major industries – Gilbert argues that instead the left in the 80s should have argued “for democratic reform of the British state, for proportional representation, or for democratic coalitions of different political groups and forces.”
He does express a wish for Corbyn to win. But not because Corbyn could lead Labour in radically changing Britain in the interests of the working class. Instead he says “Corbyn’s leadership would indeed be the beginning of the end for Labour; but that in the long term that might be a good thing.”
Gilbert goes on to argue Corbyn could be PM only if he came to “some kind of deal with UKIP and SNP to elect a government which would promise to introduce proportional representation, and then hold further elections” which Gilbert argues that he “would love to see happen personally”. He adds that Corbyn’s “election as Labour leader could be part of a process of change which would have good results eventually” but only “10 years or further down the road”.
However Gilbert’s proposals would be disastrous for the pro-Corbyn left that is forming and it is based on a completely inaccurate account of the Bennite battle in the 80s.
Gilbert and the right argue that a left-wing led Labour Party would be unelectable in 2020 as it was in 1983
Almost all of these arguments are based on a crude and uninformed analysis of the 1983 election. Gilbert repeats most of them and his inaccuracies pretty much reflect the inaccuracies extensively repeated elsewhere
The most glaring inaccuracy is that Labour had a left-wing leadership in 1983. No it didn’t, the 79-81 revolt had pretty much ended up in a draw. Left-wingers had taken over much, but not all, of the Party’s constituency organisations. The leadership of the Party, Foot and Denis Healey were however seriously discredited members of the 74-79 Labour government. Foot was elected by the PLP as Leader before the democratic reforms came in. Denis Healey, Labour Chancellor and enforcer of the IMF-demanded cuts in 76 had won the Deputy Leadership.(see footnote)
Michael Foot retained some popularity for having been the main thorn in the side of the Labour government in the 60s. On occasion he was an inspiring speaker. But he was seriously compromised by his involvement in the ‘Social Contract’ of 74-79. I worked at the time in the steel industry and his apologies for closures of steel works in his own South Wales was never forgotten. Brave, as well as a foolish, man that Foot could be, he spoke to mass meetings of steelworkers where there were repeated and long heckles shouted to him as ‘traitor’.
So we didn’t have a competent and coherent leadership but that had nothing to do with it being ‘left-wing’.
The damage of a split
Commentators also argue that the move to the left in the party let to a serious split in the Labour membership – according to Jeremy Gilbert a ‘large fraction’ of the membership left. Again this is wrong.
There was the Gang of Four breakaway of MPs but the proportion of members they took was miniscule. Even the right-wing in my own constituency Nottingham East CLP, who were one of the most right-wing in the country supporting Jack Dunnett – the only pro-hanging MP in the Party, even they stayed in the Party.
The SDP took perhaps 5% of the passive membership but they weren’t even noticed. The SDP were still damaging but essentially because they were a national media phenomenon. The problem was that the left had not built up the organisational means of opposing them and the party leadership were incapable of dealing firmly with their arguments in the media.
The so-called ‘longest suicide note’
The party had a radical manifesto – yes it did, in a number of ways. But that manifesto was not fought for by the leaders and the issues in the manifesto were not particularly the ones that we had lost voters on.
There had been the Falklands War – ‘the war to save Thatcher’s face’ as it was accurately described as. Despite Labour’s ‘civil war’ she was very low in the opinion polls at the time. That war should have been denounced as demonstrating Thatcher’s indifference to the terrible casualties of war – instead it was used to stoke nationalist reaction. Foot supported the war, a war where the number of dead was of the same order of magnitude as those who actually lived in the occupied Falkland islands, rather than looking for a less bloody way to end the occupation by the army of the Argentinian fascist general Galtieri. See this article and comments for correction from original. After finding the ‘enemy without’, of course Thatcher was later to start on the ‘enemy within’.
The other major reason that Thatcher was successful in the 1983 election was because she started the sell off of council houses. I remember this particularly well as I had heated arguments with my fellow steelworkers, most of whom lived in the council estate built around the steel works in Kirk Hallam. They had seen their rents go up for the previous decade and the bribe to buy their house at knock-down prices and temporarily low mortgages was difficult for many of them to refuse. It was a difficult argument to have. It would have been helped by a Party commitment to restore council funding and financing to allow the low rents of the 60s and 70s to brought back. But no such promise was made and the demolition of our council stock was started that probably most of us recognise as the primary problem in the current high cost of working class housing.
The one manifesto issue of the left that did cause serious electoral problems was the one about nuclear disarmament – coming after the recent jingoistic celebration of victory against Argentina, a sensible debate of militarism and war was difficult. Again that had been a conference victory but it didn’t have leadership support. Although Foot did argue for it to go in the manifesto. But there was no explanation of it.
So yes, the Labour leadership did contribute to the 1983 defeat but not by their left wing actions but by their right wing ones. They did it by 1) allowing the nationalism of the Falklands War to go unchallenged by 2) by failing to explain what was wrong with selling off our council house stock and how rents would be brought down 3) by having a policy on unilateralism in the manifesto that they were unprepared to fight for.
In retrospect – with all we have seen about a) the lies of Thatcher on and the stupidity of the Falklands war and b) the contribution to our housing problems of the loss of council houses from the 80s onwards – it would be interesting to know if those saying that we were too ‘left’ in 1983 could argue that by taking a more right wing policy over those years would have been the correct thing to do.
However the truth is that neither the party leadership nor the election campaign were particularly ‘left’ at all in 1983. The real left of the Party, that had a lot of influence in councils, was mercilessly attacked elsewhere by the media for advocating gay rights in education and elsewhere in their council jurisdiction; for advocating talking to Sinn Fein after their party the death of Bobby Sands on hunger strike.
But again in retrospect were such policies wrong? No, they weren’t – they just failed to be supplemented with crucial other activities and policies.
The period of 79-84 was one of fierce class conflict. Many arguments took place in the Party about whether the Party organisations should be alongside those struggles. In one famous article Peter Tatchell, then the Labour parliamentary candidate in Bermondsey, had called for the party to give its support to extra-parliamentary struggles. After an attack on Peter by the press, he was then publicly and stupidly denounced by Michael Foot in parliament. At the same time Peter was of course being gay-baited by the Liberal Party. It was a spectacular low point of a misled Labour Party.
But the real problem with both the 1983 election and the 1987 election was that the Labour Party was not speaking enough on the everyday issues that affected working class people. That doesn’t enter into Gilbert’s evaluation. He doesn’t criticise the Party for not doing enough to stop the “decline in manufacturing industry in the global north”. Instead he merely argues that it should be noted as a reason to move away from class politics to constitutional liberalism.
But the real problem was that the Party didn’t fight enough against de-industrialisation and the destruction of the steel, mining and manufacturing industries – particularly important in the steel industry that I worked in and that I made reference to above on Michael Foot’s record.
The Party NEC had organised a couple of demonstrations against unemployment. One actually during the deputy leadership debate in Liverpool, which attracted close to 100,000 working class people. As an example of the positive effects of this, we filled a 45 seater coach load of members go from my 800-strong union branch in the steel works in the East Midlands where I worked – partly I have to admit they went to see the left celebrity of the day Pat Phoenix (“Elsie Tanner”) of Coronation Street, who was speaking.
But the Party leaders and the NEC didn’t later promote popular campaigns such as those on the crisis in housing in East London as Peter Tatchell was calling for. It didn’t support any mass campaign to defy and stop the trade union legislation being ripped up and rewritten by the Thatcherites.
The real political inadequacies of the ‘hard left’ membership
Not all the problems were however in the soft left/ right wing leadership of the Party in these years – the Bennite opposition had its inadequacies. But the problems were the very opposite of what Gilbert argues. There were too few of them prepared to take the radicalism of the left in the Party into the unions. One example was when the NEC took a good decision to allow workplace branches to be formed.
A large proportion of the radical left that flowed into the Party at that time were those who had come from the radicalisations in the universities of ten years earlier. A very few like myself took the decision to go and work in factories – but most got jobs where they were in ‘white collar unions’ as they were known at the time. Those unions, like NALGO, ASTMS and the NUT were getting increasingly left-wing and militant. There were many excellent trade union activists who came from those unions into the Party. But many of the Bennite supporters were inactive in unions and had little understanding of their importance. There was also a huge gap in political culture between them and the so-called ‘blue collar’ unions such as the T&GWU, AEU, NUR who were less evident in the Party membership. The NUM was somewhat different and there was a more fluid relationship between the Party and the NUM in pit villages.
The Communist Party (CP) was still powerful in those blue collar unions before it rationalised its own collapse with its ‘Post Fordism’ nonsense. It organised such ‘lefts’ as existed in those unions – it had ‘fellow travellers’ in the Labour Party but it never encouraged workers to join the Labour Party for sectarian reasons. The SWP, who had a small penetration into those unions was also sectarian to the developments in the Labour Party and continually called on people to leave rather than join.
The decision of the NEC to allow factory branches could have been a way of reconnecting with those workers. But it was insufficiently promoted by the Labour Party, not supported by the CP and much of the left wing Labour Party membership, whilst passionate about nuclear disarmament, had weak relations and understanding of the organised trade union movement. A lot of them were educated by support for the great miners strike of 2 years later but by that time the right and centre left had reorganised around Kinnock and his rising star adviser Peter Mandelson.
The left in the Party from 81 to 83 were, in a nutshell, too influenced by the ideas that Gilbert rehashes in his article – about moving away from class politics. In so far as the ‘left’ contributed to the lost election of 83 that was the reason.
We need to dismiss proposals from the likes of Gilbert to move yet again away from class politics. We need to get out there stopping the evictions of bedroom tax victims, organising battles against venal landlords, arguing for an extension of council housing, unionising the low paid, reconnecting with union members in the private sector, defending the right to strike, pushing the TUC to get off its knees and fighting against the near abolition of legal trade unionism, fighting against the rising tide of racism and nationalism.
That’s the way for the left to go forward in the Party.
In the first draft I mistakenly reported that Foot was unanimously elected as Leader by the PLP – there was a 4 way contest and Foot closely beat Healey at the end of it.