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Labour – a party founded on conflict

This article is over 8 years, 8 months old
Divisions between the left and right within the Labour Party are big news. They flow from a compromise that lies at the heart of the party, writes Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2473
Right and left unite? Roy Hattersley, Neil Kinnock, Eric Heffer and Michael Foot at Labour’s conference in 1985
Right and left unite? Roy Hattersley, Neil Kinnock, Eric Heffer and Michael Foot at Labour’s conference in 1985 (Pic: John Sturrock)

The Labour right are gunning for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left. 

No sooner had 60 percent of Labour Party members and supporters elected him leader, a slew of right wingers resigned from the shadow cabinet.

But the likes of Blairites Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt, who talked about setting up a “resistance group”, haven’t gone away. And they aren’t the only ones on the attack.

Every time Corbyn makes a policy announcement, someone from the shadow cabinet undermines him.

For many of the 60,000 people who’ve joined Labour since Corbyn’s election, the Blairites represent all that’s wrong with the party. 

Those new recruits include 17,000 who’ve rejoined after leaving in disillusionment and disgust at Tony Blair. But it isn’t only Blairites trying to undermine Corbyn. 

The Labour Party was born out of an unhappy compromise between socialists and trade union leaders. 

It matched a genuine desire for working class representation. But the party was dominated by MPs and union officials. 

The party’s aim is to be an election-winning machine that can push through some reforms in parliament. 

While Labour was set up to represent workers’ interests, it buys into the myth of a “national interest” and so tries to make peace with the bosses. This tension produces the battle between left and right in the party. 

The Blairites, in groups such as the Progress think tank, came out of the defeats of the working class and the left in the 1980s. 

Workers punished Labour in the 1979 general election, which Margaret Thatcher won, for implementing austerity. 

The Labour left made headway under Tony Benn, but a large chunk of the right split to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The leadership tried to appease the rest of the right and got trounced in the 1983 general election. They then argued that the party could only get back into office by accepting Tory policies. 

Neil Kinnock, who became leader after the defeat, scolded the left. “The religion of socialism is the language of priorities,” he said. Kinnock meant that socialist principles could no longer be a priority. 

But some took this “new realism” further and wanted Labour to become and out and out capitalist party, such as the US Democrats, without links to the trade union movement.


While most of the Labour establishment thought dumping socialist policies was necessary to get back into office, not everyone wanted to go as far as the Blairites. 

So Ed Miliband’s failed policy chief Jon Cruddas is heading up another project, ironically known as “Red Shift”. 

It aims to win a Labour majority in England by dumping Blair’s neoliberalism, appealing to “traditional working class values” and pandering to Ukip’s racism. This group, including shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander, is trying to rebottle the Labour right’s weak and unappealing brand. 

But there’s also a “soft left” within the parliamentary party backed up by the union leaders, which includes shadow frontbenchers Angela Eagle and Andy Burnham.

During Corbyn’s 99th and final rally in Islington, Unite union leader Len McCluskey said, “This has shaken the Labour establishment.” It certainly has, but it has shaken union leaders too, because they’re part of the Labour establishment. 

Union leaders have posed as a left wing opposition to New Labour and the majority back Corbyn’s leadership bid. But they aren’t his natural allies. 

Their role is to balance between workers’ demands and the bosses’ needs and argue the only way to get social change is through a Labour government. 

They backed Corbyn partly out of a sense of revenge on New Labour “taking them for granted”. And backing him allowed them to point to an alternative to workers taking action.

Their strategy has been to get “working class candidates elected”. 

The Unite and the GMB unions now have a large number of sponsored MPs, but it doesn’t mean they are on the left.

The old AEEU union was a bastion of the Labour right and produced many frontbenchers.


If Corbyn doesn’t look on course to win the general election, the union leaders will turn on him and the left. Throughout the TUC conference, they were already trying to quietly undermine him. “The jury’s out,” said GMB general secretary Paul Kenny, while McCluskey warned, “He’s got a week.” 

But so far Corbyn and his allies have responded by being on the defensive.  

The Labour left is committed to parliament and winning elections. That’s why historically it has repeatedly backed down from taking on the right in the name of “unity” and maintaining a “broad church”. 

In his book In Place of Fear, left winger Anuerin Bevan explained that the defeat of the 1926 general strike meant the best hope for workers was winning reforms through parliament. While some in the Labour left look to the movement outside, it still thinks change will come through parliament. 

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has talked about going on tour and setting up local participatory budgeting meetings as part of a new movement. But the danger is that such a movement remains clearly within Labour and aimed at parliamentary politics. 

The Labour right’s strategy isn’t to launch a coup. It is to grind down the left, compromise Corbyn and demoralise his supporters.

The right will not be beaten by internal battles inside the Labour Party machine. Our strength does not lie in upstairs rooms in pubs or party sub-committees.

It lies in building a movement independent of Labour that can beat the right and take on austerity.

Labour delegates try to speak during a defence debate in 1988
Labour delegates try to speak during a defence debate in 1988 (Pic: John Sturrock)

Nuclear is key debate to split the party between left and right

 Britain’s nuclear arsenal was spawned in total secrecy by Clement Attlee’s reforming Labour government of 1945. 

But Jeremy Corbyn’s unilateralism—dumping Britain’s nuclear arsenal—has long been a rallying cry of the Labour left.

The annual Labour conference punch ups were a big focus for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) movement. 

The Labour left took up unilateralism, but its leaders ended up capitulating under pressure.

Labour left leader Aneurin Bevan denounced unilateralism at the 1957 Labour conference as sending the foreign secretary “naked into the conference chamber … to preach sermons … you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.” 

He’d done it to keep the party together, and taken Labourism to its logical end.

CND aimed to win Labour to unilateralism through the party’s left.

Ten thousand protesters descended on the 1960 Labour conference, which supported unilateralism 3,303,000 to 2,896,000.

The union leaders had backed it—only to slap the party leadership on the wrists and help trounce it the following year. 

Today the Unison union is against Trident renewal, Unite and the GMB support it. 

Labour’s right wing leader Hugh Gaitskell vowed to “fight, fight, fight and fight again” over unilateralism. But the leadership didn’t have to—it just ignored it. That continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Michael Foot, Labour leader in the 1983 election, was a staunch unilateralist. The right will try to beat Corbyn with Foot’s stick.

Dumping it was portrayed as symbolic of the party becoming “electable”, but Labour didn’t lose because of unilateralism.

Workers’ confidence to change society dipped as struggles in the 1970s went down. And Foot helped the Tories with jingoist speeches supporting the Falklands war and appeased the right in his own party. 

It’s good for Labour members to fight to win the argument against Trident renewal.

But stopping it requires a powerful movement aimed at social change—not a yearly tussle at Labour Party conference.

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