Review: A Party with Socialists in It

Simon Hannah’s book about the history of the Labour left can help us think through what strategies the left should adopt, writes Colin Wilson.

Image: Steve Eason / Flickr

It’s just over a year since Corbyn defied the predictions of every political pundit and made major gains in the election. Throughout the summer any large event, from festivals to football matches, was marked by crowds spontaneously singing “oh, Jeremy Corbyn”. For over twenty years politics had been dominated by what Tariq Ali has called the “extreme centre”. In Britain both New Labour and the Tories supported the free market, privatisation and imperialist war. Something similar happened across Europe. But with Corbyn’s election success, socialism was back on the agenda. And indeed, Labour’s membership has more than doubled, from 200,000 to 550,000. Momentum, the Labour left organisation established after Corbyn’s election to the leadership, has 40,000 members.

If it seemed then that things had changed and the left was on the front foot, it’s also true that last summer seems a long time ago. None of the pundits who utterly failed to predict the result of the election has lost their job. Corbyn has repeatedly come under attack over anti-Semitism. Many people were horrified two weeks ago to see thousands demonstrating in central London in support of Tommy Robinson. That protest highlights the fact that the collapse of the neoliberal centre can benefit the right as well as the left.

And it also remains to be seen how far Corbyn can undo changes made in the Blair-Brown period. Those years of the extreme centre were characterised by changes described in Peter Mair’s important book Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. Mair noted that, across the west, political parties were in decline. Turnout in elections, membership of political parties and identification with those parties had all fallen. If citizens were withdrawing from bourgeois democracy, so was the elite, now a political class which increasingly retreated into the institutions of the state, defined itself in terms of its managerial abilities – as opposed to its ability to respond to the popular will – and which defined democracy in terms of process (transparency, the rule of law, the involvement of stakeholders) rather than mass participation. It remains to be seen, as Richard Seymour has pointed out, to what extent Corbyn can reverse these longer-term trends – how many of the new recruits to Labour are active in the party, for example – and to what extent his leadership exists in the context they set.

So we face several questions. Is the neoliberal centre really collapsing? And if so, will the right or left benefit most – and what can we do to ensure it’s the left that gains? Finally, where does the Labour Party fit into the picture? Simon Hannah’s book provides information that can provide a useful context as we discuss these questions.

One place to start an assessment of Labour would be to ask where radical change in Britain has come from in the last sixty years. There is no avoiding the fact that the Labour Party was not at all central to the most inspiring events. It was by and large irrelevant to the radicalisation around 1968 and the industrial militancy of the early 1970s, of which one high point was the Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath losing the 1974 election, which he had presented as a trial of strength between the Tories and workers. Thatcher was removed by Tory MPs in 1990, after a mass movement against the Poll Tax, including rioting in Trafalgar Square, convinced them she had become a liability. Huge changes in attitudes to black and LGBT people have come through campaigns, often with union involvement, and via personal contacts in workplaces and communities. Of course, Labour in parliament plays some part in these processes – as when Labour introduced almost complete LGBT equality between 1997 and 2010 – but it’s prior shifts in public opinion that made legal change possible.

The main way change has come about, then, is through the self-activity of working people, not through parliament. As Marx put it, the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. That self-emancipation can’t come through parliament or be legislated into existence by the state, because the state – the cops, the armed forces, the legal system and so on – is controlled by the ruling class. This is a fundamentally different approach from that which underlies the Labour Party, including much of the Labour left.

But a complication now arises. Working people (a group which includes different genders, ethnicities and so forth) are the key agents of change, so socialists have to maintain a political relationship with them. To some extent we do that in our workplaces and unions, though union struggles are at a historically low level. When it comes to politics, we have to acknowledge that a large proportion of left-wing workers are now in the Labour Party or identify closely with it. We have to relate to Labour Party members, while maintaining a principled disagreement with them about the political basis of the party they are in. This means striking a difficult balance – on the one hand, we need to avoid dissolving ourselves into Labour, which is hard because Labour is so much bigger than the far left. But we also have to avoid taking simplistic and dogmatic positions which maintain our revolutionary purity but don’t help us increase our influence over the many people enthused by Corbyn.

Simon’s history of the Labour left provides historical context which can help us carry through this approach. To start with, Simon makes clear that the Labour Party has always included various different political strands. Most members are working people, who join so as to improve the lives of other working people in some way. But the organisational and intellectual leadership of the party comes from quite a different world. To begin with, there are Labour right intellectuals, such as the Fabians through the lifetime of the party and most Guardian columnists today. Their aim, typically, is to make capitalism function in a more efficient and humane way. They don’t feel any burning need to end capitalism and so in the last few years they have consistently failed to understand the revulsion at neoliberalism which has powered Corbyn’s success.

The intellectuals are joined in the de facto leadership of the Labour Party by Labour MPs and senior trade union officials. The status of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) underlines the undemocratic nature of Labour’s structures. In practice, MPs aren’t accountable to the rest of the party from day to day – all that members can do is to deselect an MP come election time. This lack of democracy, Simon explains, dates back to the Labour constitution of 1918. Time and again, the PLP has taken the view that it, not the membership, is the most important element in the party. The day-to-day experience of MPs amid the grandeur of parliament is completely different from that of rank-and-file Labour members and voters.

Image: Steve Eason / Flickr

But the problem goes deeper than the experience of MPs, to the strategy of getting change through parliament, because that strategy involves leaving the British state intact – and in particular, leaving intact its role as an imperialist war machine. This, again, goes way back – J.H. Thomas, put in charge of ‘the colonies’ in the first Labour government in 1924, explained that part of his job was to ensure that there was “no mucking about with the British Empire”. Clem Atlee, Prime Minister in the 1945 government which made so many significant reforms of benefit to working people, approved the development of the British atom bomb. A key plank of the British state’s policy since World War Two has been to act as a junior partner of the US, and that approach underlies both Blair’s eagerness for war in Iraq and current manoeuvring of the Labour right in support of Israel.

All this is easy to reject. But it’s not just the Labour right that favours leaving the state intact. The Labour left favours redistribution of wealth – but for that to happen, capitalism has to be in good health to produce the surplus wealth, and the state willing and able to tax and spend. The reforms of the 1945 government after all, most of which deserve our wholehearted support – the creation of the NHS, for example – involved an expansion of state power, not its destruction. And while workers benefited enormously from the reforms, the ruling class also gained a functioning industrial infrastructure through nationalisation of the railways, efficient ways of maintaining a healthy workforce through the provisions of the welfare state and so on. After all, the creation of a welfare state took place in other European countries without the left in government – in Germany, the post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer was a Tory.

The third element of the Labour leadership is leading trade union officials – it was they who established the party in 1900, as Simon explains, so they would gain representation in parliament. Trade union leaders continue to play a significant role in Labour today. For example Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, is an important Corbyn supporter – people close to him play influential roles in Corbyn’s staff team and the union he heads is a significant Labour funder. But there are real differences, again, between trade union leaders and rank-and-file working-class militants, because union leaders exist to negotiate with capitalism, not to destroy it. The classic example, which Simon cites, concerns a meeting between the leaders of the miners’, rail and transport unions and the government during the General Strike of 1926. Summoned to Downing Street, Prime Minister David Lloyd George explained to the union leaders that they had more power than the state – so were they willing to take state power? Miners’ leader Robert Smillie later recalled how he felt at that moment – “from that moment on we were beaten and we knew we were”. The possibility that they might have no one to negotiate with, that their own role as negotiators might therefore become irrelevant, filled union leaders with horror.

We’ve not experiencing a high level of union militancy for a long time, let alone a general strike. But the recent UCU strike of university teachers highlights the same potential gap between unions militants and their leaders. UCU leader Sally Hunt has been interested in preserving the union’s structures and coming to some reasonable settlement, while for many UCU members the strike was about the broader political context of the university in neoliberalism. Again, Hunt relied on bureaucratic manoeuvring at UCU congress when she faced criticism from a newly energised membership. The disparity between union leaders and ordinary members is clear – yet it’s the leaders who have always played a significant role in the Labour Party.

These three forces – the Labour right intelligentsia, the PLP and the union leadership, all of them still active today – mean that Labour left forces have always faced an uphill battle inside the party. To their credit, that has not stopped them fighting. In 1921 Labour councillors in Poplar in east London went to jail rather than put up local taxes in a working-class area, and gained a partial victory. Manny Shinwell from Glasgow, where he was a trade union activist and had been imprisoned after trade unionists were attacked by police, was elected a Labour MP in 1922. Aneurin Bevan, who established the NHS after 1945, had gone down the pit age 14 – his father had died in his arms of pneumoconiosis or ‘miner’s lung’.

But the respect any socialist should feel for these people doesn’t mean we can ignore the fundamental problems structured into the Labour Party. To be honest, I had expected Simon’s book to tempt me to join Labour more than it did. I also expected that, after his clear and useful account of the problems the Labour left has faced in the past, Simon would put forward something by way of a strategy to avoid similar disasters in future. That doesn’t happen – the book just ends, and I remain outside Labour. But, whether we’re in or out, we need to work together on numerous tasks – the most immediate to build the demos in July against Trump and the far right. As people inside and outside Labour work together and debate strategy, there’s a lot of historical material in this book to inform that debate.

A Party with Socialist in It, by Simon Hannah, is published by Pluto.

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