With the Labour Party’s swelling membership amid continuing tensions between the Labour’s left and right wings, a book that addresses the fortunes of socialists in the party could not be more timely. Simon Hannah has provided a good summary of their rises and falls, going back to the creation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893, the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) seven years later, through to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and ensuing battles with the party’s right wing.
As Hannah writes, “the arguments raised and the political divisions that emerged in 1900 have continued to reverberate down the years”, and, of course, they have yet, if ever, to be resolved.
He outlines the three basic components that made up Labour’s formation — socialists mainly from the ILP, the trade union bureaucracy and liberals grouped around the Fabians. Hannah then proceeds to not only outline the divisions that have played out between them ever since, but to provide analysis of why successive attempts by the left to win positions and policy initiatives have ended in disaster.
This history is mapped out over the great events of the 118 years since the LRC’s foundation — the 1926 General Strike, the outbreak of the first and second world wars, the formation of the National Government in 1931, the Golden Years of Clement Atlee’s 1945 government, and so on.
At each point Hannah discusses the formation of left campaigns, such as the Socialist League in 1931, Keep Left in 1946, the Brains Trusts of the early 1950s, the effect on the party of CND in the late 1950s and early 60s, the rise of Militant, the Alternative Economic Strategy of the 1970s and Municipal Socialism after Margaret Thatcher’s Tory victory in 1979.
He details Michael Foot’s election as leader following Labour’s 1979 defeat and the left’s belief that now was the time to make inroads into the party’s democratic structures, with moves to deselect right wing MPs, reform voting procedures and propose policies to replace those that had led to electoral failure.
Such actions culminated in the campaign to elect Tony Benn as deputy leader in 1981, which he lost by a whisker to Denis Healey. From then on the left gradually fell apart, helped by Neil Kinnock’s offensive against Militant in 1983, which had repercussions for every socialist in the party.
One factor missing from Hannah’s analysis is the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent collapse of what many believed to be socialist societies in Eastern Europe, and ultimately the Soviet Union — events which disoriented many on the left at that time.
Hannah does, however, provide arguments as to why the left not only succeeded in winning important victories, but critically why it was never able to sustain them in the face of the right wing attacks and the power of the trade union block vote.
He also discusses how British capitalism has both accommodated Labour governments and undermined them when threatened by even moderately left policies.
Critically Hannah criticises the left’s failures to concentrate on activities outside Westminster, and its susceptibility to rely on a single leader to deliver, as was the case with Aneurin Bevan, and arguably Tony Benn.
Hannah clearly welcomes Corbyn’s rise to leadership, and celebrates Labour’s conference last year — the largest in Labour’s history. That’s why his conclusion should be taken seriously: “Any serious reading of history can lead to only one conclusion: the socialist left will have to break down the traditional institutions of government and power in order to make any headway at all.” This means “doing something the left has always talked about but never done — building a mass extra-parliamentary movement.”
Let’s hope Hannah’s appeal is taken up. The history he records, however, does not provide evidence to suggest that it will.