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A party in turmoil

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Issue 1688

Labour’s splits: past and present

A party in turmoil

By Chris Harman

THE ARGUMENTS over the London mayor election are causing debate and soul – searching among every one of the 300,000 members of the Labour Party and the 700,000 activists who hold the trade union movement together. The issues involved go to the very heart of the party that has dominated working class politics in Britain for 100 years. The party was born in 1900 as a result of an uneasy compromise between three different groups. There were individual socialists who had been campaigning for massive social change for more than a decade.

There were trade union leaders who distrusted far – reaching social change but wanted a political weapon to protect their union funds and bargaining rights. And there were intellectuals and would – be politicians from the upper middle class frustrated by the failure of the then – powerful Liberal Party to embrace their ideas and ambitions.

The individual socialists, then organised through the Independent Labour Party and later through the Constituency Labour Parties, did the hard slog of building Labour. Their efforts resulted in Labour electing its first substantial group of MPs in 1906 and becoming the main opposition party in 1918. Labour formed governments in 1924, 1929, 1945, 1964, 1974 and, most recently, in 1997.

But from the beginning the parliamentary party was dominated by ambitious politicians and conservative – minded trade union officials. Keir Hardie was already complaining about this 90 years ago. The history of the party since has been one of frequent tension between the activists and the parliamentarians. The first example was in the period after 1907. In that year Victor Grayson won a stunning by – election victory in the Pennine constituency of Colne Valley standing as “Labour and socialist”. Grayson denounced the Commons as “an ancient chamber swaddled in the medieval vestments of pompous and now – meaningless procedure”. He refused to join the Labour Party but, far from turning their backs on him, many workers found his style and message hugely attractive.

The next split was after the First World War. A lot of activists were pulled towards the new Communist Party. The Labour leadership reacted by expelling dozens of local parties.

A decade later the disastrous experience of the 1929 – 31 Labour government caused the Independent Labour Party as a whole to split away with its thousands of members and half a dozen MPs. There was another split in the late 1930s. The leadership banned a left wing group, the Socialist League, and soon afterwards expelled two of its leaders- future chancellor of the exchequer Stafford Cripps and future health minister Aneurin Bevan.

Seven years before he was expelled, Bevan said, “I tell you it’s the Labour Party or nothing.” He denounced anyone who threatened to break away. But at a particular point he preferred to stick to his principles even though he knew he would be expelled. Bevan later gave in and returned to Labour. But his dilemma sums up what millions have felt-that the price of staying inside the party is to trample on the beliefs that brought them into politics. The whole party was in turmoil again in the early 1950s after Bevan resigned in disgust from the Labour government over the introduction of health service charges.

The most recent great division occurred in the 1980s. Disillusionment with the disastrous experience of another Labour government, that of 1974 – 9, led to a huge groundswell of support for the left wing policies associated with Tony Benn in the early 1980s. Each of these occasions saw the socialist activists on the ground in collision with the parliamentary leadership. There were also occasional splits of a different sort-between trade union officialdom and the parliamentary leadership. In 1931 the trade union leaders prevented the party as a whole backing its prime minister, MacDonald, when he went over to the Tories. In 1969 figures like Jack Jones of the transport workers’ union and Hugh Scanlon of the engineers’ union opposed Labour’s attempt to introduce anti – union laws. In 1980 – 1 some of the big unions briefly backed Tony Benn. Such behaviour by the unions caused fury among wide sections of the parliamentary party. This led four former ministers and several MPs to split away in the early 1980s to form the Social Democratic Party. It later led the group around Tony Blair to work on their “project” to break the link with both socialism and the unions.

YET FOR a century the Labour alliance has held together despite splits to left and right. It suited the career politicians to get funds and a captive audience from the unions. The trade union leaders liked having friends in parliament who might do them favours. They also welcomed saying, “Wait for a Labour government,” when their members demanded action. The union leaders and parliamentarians united to drive Cripps from the party in the late 1930s, to isolate the Bevanites in the 1950s, and to sink the Bennite movement after 1981.

Parliamentary careerists and union leaders have preserved Labour for a century as a party reliant on workers for votes, while deflecting upsurges of class feeling into safe parliamentary channels. That was why the Russian revolutionary Lenin called Labour a “bourgeois workers’ party”. The party has organised workers as a political force. In this it differs from the Democratic Party in the US. But it has organised them in such a way as to bind them to many of the ideas of the existing system. It has ensured that for four generations the socialist argument in Britain has been framed in terms of working to reform, rather than revolutionise, society.

The socialist, activist wing of the party has accepted such ideas. Its leaders have seen elections within the existing set – up as the main way to achieve change and so have nearly always been terrified of the consequences of a split from Labour. The Independent Labour Party did try to build a separate socialist party in the 1930s. But it did so on an electoralist basis and failed. However, the Communist Party was able to maintain an effective and independent presence for more than half a century. At its height in the 1940s it had 40,000 members, many of them leading militants inside the working class.

The Communist Party could do this because, when it was founded, it focused on activity outside parliament-on the struggles in factories and localities, and on propagating socialist ideas. The party’s failures sprang not from being independent of the Labour Party, but from its identification with Stalin and his successors in Russia, leading it to follow a succession of disastrous policies.

The split in the Labour Party today is not just a copy of the previous splits. It contains additional, potentially explosive features. Most previous splits came when Labour was in opposition, making it easy for the right to say division helped the Tories. Today it is not only the activists who are turning against Blair. So are millions of ordinary trade unionists and traditional Labour supporters. And the disarray among the Tories makes it very difficult for talk of the “danger of splitting” to get a wide hearing.

There is also a feeling of a new worldwide mood of rebellion against capitalist values which found expression at Seattle. Socialists need to challenge the whole notion, built into Labour for 100 years, that parliament should be the pinnacle of socialist activity Capitalists do not simply rely on the parliamentary activity of MPs. More important for them is their control of banks, industry, the media, and their influence over the courts, the police chiefs and the armed forces. They know that with these instruments they can always bend parliaments to their will.

We need to convince people who have looked to Labour in the past of the need for a party that will fight on every one of these fronts. Joint activity with them to build a socialist alternative to Blairism will be key to that task.

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