Socialist Worker

How Labour's right wing has been challenged in past

Issue No. 1811


LABOUR WAS the biggest party after the 1929 general elections, and Ramsay MacDonald became prime minister. But as slump hit the world the Labour government turned on its own supporters and imposed harsh austerity measures. The Labour cabinet accepted a range of brutal cuts but eventually balked at what MacDonald wanted, and in 1931 he formed a government with the Tories.

In response to that betrayal the left grew strongly. The Socialist League was founded in 1932 and that year's party conference passed, without any discussion, a motion that said, 'The main objective of the Labour Party is the establishment of socialism.'

By 1934 the league had 74 branches and over 3,000 members. Its leader, Stafford Cripps, urged Labour to be prepared to use 'dictatorial powers' against big business and to get ready for civil war. But all the advances for the left were based on the temporary support of a few big unions.

Once the party was capable of delivering the 'moderate' policies the union leaders wanted, the bureaucrats swung against the left. The party leaders launched a witch-hunt. The Socialist League's members worked with organisations outside the Labour Party, such as Communist Party members, in joint activity against fascism and war.

The Labour leaders ordered that anyone sharing a platform with a Communist Party member would be immediately expelled. In 1937 the Socialist League was disaffiliated.

The league gave in and dissolved itself. But that was not enough to save Cripps and left winger Aneurin Bevan, were still expelled. When Cripps's expulsion was discussed at the 1939 conference it was carried by 2,100,000 votes to 402,000. Bevan was readmitted after agreeing a 'loyalty oath'. Cripps did not get back in for five years-by which time he was a right winger.


THE REFORMS implemented by the 1945 Labour government were enough to keep the left satisfied. But a powerful left current grew again as the government backtracked on the changes it had made. Aneurin Bevan and two other ministers resigned from the cabinet in 1951 over a budget which vastly increased arms spending while introducing charges for some health services.

The Bevanite left went on the offensive against the leadership. They had real support among the rank and file. But the leaders fought back, with the help of the votes controlled by the union leaders. The Bevanites were banned from meeting together in 1952. They meekly complied.

Three years later Bevan was again on the verge of expulsion when he and 63 other MPs voted against the party's nuclear policy. He hung on by surrendering to Gaitskell, the right winger who had beaten him for the party leadership. Then, in 1957, Bevan sent a shockwave through the party by denouncing calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament as 'an emotional spasm' at the party conference. The Bevanites were dead.

Right wing 'modernisers' now tried to force through major changes in the party's policies. Gaitskell was eventually defeated over the move because key union leaders felt he was going 'too far'. Buoyed by this victory, the left rose again.

Harold Wilson, a former Bevanite, became leader after Gaitskell's death. His talk of the 'white heat' of the scientific revolution greatly impressed the left. But when he became prime minister in 1964 he pushed though wage curbs and racist immigration laws.

The left was thrown into confusion. Their 'dynamic' leader was as distant as a right winger.


THE 1974-9 Labour government presided over the biggest fall in the living standards of employed workers for a century. It doubled unemployment and stoked racism. There was revolt inside the party. In an unprecedented 45 Commons votes, 50 or more Labour MPs rebelled against the government.

Many Labour members vowed they would never allow such a right wing government to rule in their name. Left wingers pushed through far reaching constitutional changes in the party to make it more democratic.

Sections of the union leaderships were prepared to back the left to pay back the party leaders for their attacks on workers in 1974-9. The high point was reached with Benn's election campaign for the deputy leadership. In 1981 he lost by only a tiny number of votes-50.43 percent for right winger Denis Healey, 49.57 percent for Benn.

But the conference 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'. It attacked the left as 'divisive'.

Tony Benn agreed not to stand again for deputy leader. Within months, the party's executive was preparing for what became a major witch-hunt against the supporters of the Militant newspaper. The 'soft left' enthusiastically backed the purges.

With the left on the run, the terrible defeat in the general election of 1983 saw the triumph of the 'dream ticket' of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley. The party leaders now began a long process of swinging the party rightwards towards 'Thatcherism with a human face'. Any policy that carried a whiff of socialism was ditched.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 3 Aug 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1811
Share this article



Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.