Something historic happened last week. It wasn’t Gordon Brown’s coronation. That – and the inability of the Blairites to mount a serious challenge – was entirely predictable.
No, the historic thing was the inability of John McDonnell, who has been campaigning for a year as the standard bearer of the left, to get enough nominations from Labour MPs to run against Brown.
What this represents is a break in the political cycle running through the history of the Labour Party. Every previous Labour government provoked a major rebellion from the left against its betrayal of the hopes that had led to its election.
The collapse of Ramsay MacDonald’s government in 1931 pushed the entire Labour Party to the left. It also strengthened the forces, inside and outside the party, demanding that the leadership go further.
Before it was electorally defeated in 1951, the postwar Labour government had also descended into crisis.
The leader of the left, Aneurin Bevan, headed a rebellion against the health service cuts imposed by chancellor Hugh Gaitskell to fund a huge increase in military spending.
Once Labour was in opposition, the Bevanites developed into a mass movement fighting for the party leadership. Gaitskell needed the full support of the trade union bureaucracy to beat them and to force Bevan to accept defeat.
Across the two Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s the same pattern repeated itself.
This time it was Tony Benn who became champion of the Labour left.
Disappointment with Harold Wilson’s first government and the great working class insurgency against the Tories in the early 1970s thrust Benn into a top cabinet job when Labour returned to office in 1974.
Though Benn was eventually isolated and demoted, the right wing policies pursued by the Labour government provoked a massive left wing rebellion after Margaret Thatcher’s election victory.
The Bennite movement represented the closest the Labour left has come to winning. Benn came within a hair’s breadth of being elected deputy leader in January 1981.
But the basic power setup of the Labour Party – the ruling alliance between the parliamentary leadership and the trade-union machine – ensured that the left always lost.
Nevertheless, the cycle of betrayal, rebellion, and defeat was an important mechanism through which the party renewed itself.
Pressure from the left pushed the leadership to adopt some of their demands and thereby helped the party to keep up a connection with Labour’s working class base.
And the great moments of hope at the height of the Bevanite and Bennite movements helped to draw into the party fresh generations of activists bringing new energy and talent.
But, although Tony Blair’s has been far and away the most right wing Labour government, the mechanism hasn’t worked this time. Contrary to much media chatter, this is not because there are no movements of the left.
On the contrary, with the Seattle protests of November 1999 we saw the emergence of a new generation of activists campaigning against capitalist globalisation.
And the anti-war movement has acted as an enormous generator of militant energy.
But very little of this radical energy has spilled into the Labour Party.
A handful of Labour MPs have campaigned very honourably against the war. But their efforts haven’t been accompanied by a renewal of the left’s base inside the party. The biggest figure on the Labour left is still Tony Benn.
No doubt this has something to do with the way in which Blair has stripped Labour’s decision-making bodies of any power.
In the late 1970s, many of the 1960s generation of revolutionary socialists flooded into the Labour Party because they believed there was a real chance of pushing it permanently to the left.
The party structures have now been drastically re-engineered to prevent that happening. But the membership has also changed.
It has, of course, shrunk drastically under Blair. Moreover a process of selection has taken place.
Thanks above all to Iraq, disillusioned activists – not just from the left but from the old social democratic right – have dropped out, while the suits have stayed.
So now, in a historic reversal, it’s the unions, which used to be the party leadership’s bulwark against a more radical membership, that are now the main source of pressure for more left wing policies.
In the last few days, union leaders have been trying to justify their failure to support McDonnell and to explain that their project to “reclaim Labour” still has life in it.
They are clinging to the hope that their candidate, Jon Cruddas, can win the deputy leadership.
These are illusions, however well or badly Cruddas does. Labour has never been an instrument of radical change but the left used to provide powerful counter-pressures to its tendency to betray its supporters.
But now that mechanism is broken.
So is the Labour Party – and it can’t be fixed.
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