Socialist Worker

The left and the Labour Party leadership

After the failure of John McDonnell’s campaign to get on the ballot paper for leader, Socialist Worker looks at why the Labour left is so weak

Issue No. 2206

It is a disgrace that left wing MP John McDonnell was kept off the ballot paper for the election of Labour Party leader.

The situation was encapsulated at the GMB union congress last week. This was the one hustings that had McDonnnell on the platform and he received rapturous support from union delegates.

Arguing for left policies put him head and shoulders above the others in the debate. He clearly had the backing of most delegates—but not one GMB- sponsored MP nominated him.

McDonnell, who Socialist Worker fully supported for Labour leader, was not kept out of the election because his views are unpopular among ordinary Labour members and trade unionists.

He was kept off because his ideas are too popular, something that worried Labour’s right wing establishment.

The state of the left in the Labour Party is such that even Diane Abbott, who has a weaker record as a left campaigner than McDonnell, could only get on the ballot paper after carefully constructed manoeuvres at the top of the party. They wanted to give the illusion of debate and diversity.

Over the years Tony Blair and Gordon Brown stacked the odds against the left in Labour’s internal structures.

For instance, it used to be the case that the left would fight hard to get policies and motions through the Labour conference, which the leadership would then ignore.

The situation now is that there aren’t any policy motions allowed at the Labour Party conference at all.


There is a more basic problem—the Labour left is incredibly weak.

The Campaign Group of left wing MPs now has less than a dozen members. Only 16 Labour MPs out of 258 backed John McDonnell as leader.

Some 250,000 people have left the Labour Party since 1997 because of New Labour’s attacks and betrayals.

Often after the defeat of a Labour government there is a move to the left by significant sections of the party.

The high point for this was after the Labour government of the late 1970s presided over the biggest fall in workers’ living standards for a century.

This betrayal, and the return of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher, led to a huge debate inside Labour.

In 1981 left winger Tony Benn stood for the deputy leadership.

Sections of the union leaderships were prepared to back the left to pay back the party leaders for their attacks on workers between 1974-9.

Benn lost by a tiny number of votes: he received 49.57 percent of the vote, against 50.43 percent for right winger Denis Healey.

But this marked the end of the left’s rise. In 1982 a gathering of senior trade union leaders and Labour Party figures agreed what became known as “the peace of Bishop’s Stortford”.

The agreement attacked the left as “divisive”.

Within months, the party’s executive was preparing for what became a major witch-hunt against the left. The “soft left” enthusiastically backed the purges.

With the left on the run, the terrible defeat in the 1983 general election saw party leaders begin a long process of swinging the party rightwards towards “Thatcherism with a human face”.

Any policy that carried a whiff of socialism was ditched.

The left of Labour upsurge in the early 1980s was in contrast to the defeats that the workers’ movement was suffering.

The battles inside the Labour Party became an alternative to the class struggle outside for many.

The Labour left, like the right inside Labour, accept the idea that getting Labour elected to government is the key to changing society.

With the defeats of the 1980s the left increasingly lost confidence that socialist ideas were popular. They accepted the argument that Labour had to move to the right to get elected.

A second factor further eroded the left’s confidence.

Most of the left inside Labour looked to the state as the vehicle to introduce socialism—once a Labour government with a socialist programme was at the helm, of course.

But the return of economic crisis to advanced capitalism in the 1970s saw the failure of Keynesian-style state intervention and a shift towards more free market, neoliberal economics.

Even more devastatingly, many of the Labour left had illusions that the state capitalist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were somehow socialist.

The collapse of Stalinism after 1989 further undermined the left’s belief that they could offer a coherent alternative to the right.

Many of those who set out to transform the Labour Party into a

genuine socialist party ended up either dropping out in demoralisation or being changed themselves, abandoning left wing ideas.

Tony Blair’s New Labour cabinet was full of people who were once firmly on the left of the party.

The root of the problem is the contradictions of a party that is supposed to represent workers within a system that is hostile to their interests.

The reality is that the politics of working within the system don’t just wear down principles—they transform them altogether.

Even when Labour has shifted left the key struggle has always been outside the structures of the Labour Party.

Key battles

In the 1930s, Labour swung left after former Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald joined the Tories in a coalition government that cut unemployment benefit.

But the fight against fascism and unemployment took place in the streets and workplace, with the much smaller Communist Party playing a key role.

In the 1980s steel workers, printers, hospital workers and above all the miners in their year long strike of 1984-5 fought the key battles.

There is a big group of Labour Party supporters that is clearly far to the left of the leadership, and many will stay inside the party.

But the agenda within Labour is far too limited to meet the urgent tasks of building a real alternative capable of fighting the Tories.

Socialists should work with all those who want to resist whether they are inside or outside the Labour Party.

We should back those who still want to move the party to the left.

But the key arena for resistance is outside Labour.

And the decisive struggle is not the doomed attempt to claim or reclaim Labour but to build a genuine revolutionary socialist alternative.

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Tue 15 Jun 2010, 18:43 BST
Issue No. 2206
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