Continuity and change in the Labour Party

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First published in 1988, Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein's The Labour Party: A Marxist History was indispensible to those trying to understand the power and limitations of reformism. Charlie Kimber explains why he has contributed to an updated edition covering the period from Blair to Corbyn.

An extraordinary transformation in the image of the Labour Party happened in 2015 with Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader. A party that had acted as an efficient and loyal servant of the capitalist class was suddenly speaking about a challenge to big business, the banks, and the super-rich.

Corbyn’s success has boosted the whole left, demonstrating how socialist ideas can be popular and can conquer wide backing from working class people. One of the best aspects is that politics has been at least partially raised from a discussion about small managerial alterations within a generally agreed framework of pro-business schemes.

Until recently the limit of radicalism was policies such as a cap on energy prices charged by the privatised firms. Now it is possible to discuss nationalisation and what form this should take. Capitalism constantly tries to reduce our horizons to the level of the individual, personal responsibility and detail. This is how the systematic nature of exploitation and oppression is obscured and denied. But now there are debates about structures and overarching patterns.

During the years of Tony Blair’s overtly pro-imperialist and neoliberal government many left wing Labour members were shamefaced about their support for their party. After Corbyn’s election as leader their hopes soared, and many thousands who had left because they were sickened by Blair returned with new determination to achieve important changes in society through the mechanism of a Labour government.

But at the same time the great majority of Labour MPs remain wholly opposed to Corbyn. A leader who they regard with contempt has been imposed on them by a mass membership (who most MPs despise), and by his ability to crush opponents in leadership elections and drive up the Labour vote in a general election. Yet the MPs and the Labour right are in no way reconciled to this situation. New methods, such as the furore over alleged antisemitism, are regularly used in an effort to demoralise Corbyn and his supporters and force him to make concessions. Regrettably he has frequently compromised with these forces rather than using his mass support seeking to drive them out.

Party unity

Throughout history Labour’s left has prioritised the party’s unity over principled support for socialist principles. Far too often they have stifled their criticisms of imperialist war and pro-capitalist policies in order to keep the centre of the party on board, in the hope that it will then ally against the right. But, influenced in its turn by the most backward forces within the party and the trade union leaderships, the centre demands further retreats by the left. The result is a spiral of concessions that becomes stronger the closer Labour seems to entering government.

But the disenchantment with the system continues to grow. A City fund manager told a newspaper in 2018, “Capitalism is not working for the under-40s, so they’re voting for socialism.” Actually it’s not working for the over-40s either. In the United States just 45 percent of 18-29 year olds view capitalism positively. “This represents a 12-point decline in young adults’ positive views of capitalism in just the past two years and a marked shift since 2010, when 68 percent viewed it positively,” notes pollster Gallup. Meanwhile, 51 percent of young people are positive about socialism.

There are reasons to see the potential for a fight for a socialist world, despite the towering threat from the racists and the far right. Yet many of these discussions underplay or recklessly ignore the question of the power of capitalism and the state. Unfortunately neither of these will disregard any attempt at fundamental change that begins to encroach on the wealth and power of the ruling class. The class forcibly separated from the means of production, the working class, has a very big struggle ahead if it is to shape history.

Parliamentary parties such as Labour face the limitations that come from the electoral and constitutional sphere dominating over extra-parliamentary work. Such pressures have always been present, and they still are today, quite well expressed by Francisco Louca, one of the leading figures of the Portuguese Left Bloc.

Reflecting on the Bloc’s recent experience in parliament he warned of the danger of “resignation to very limited measures in the name of maintaining the positions acquired; refusal to criticise the institutions or their management in the name of possible future agreements; the idea that politics advances in small steps; fear of public opinion which leads to not presenting a socialist alternative which leads to other institutional forms; desire to avoid the risk of conflict for fear of losing. All these forms of adaptation distort a left-wing policy based on popular representation”.

Corbyn’s enemies — big business, the Tories, most of the media, the Labour right — will hit him with huge assaults if he reaches Number 10. There’s a real danger for those of us who are revolutionaries to look at this situation and say, “Well I’ve seen this film before; I know how it ends.” What we should say is that we have to ensure we don’t go down that same path. A revolutionary’s job is certainly to point out the historical experience of Labour governments in Britain who said they were socialist, but then failed the working class. But it’s also to say the key thing that will prevent us simply repeating that experience is by the systematic mobilisation of the masses in the workplaces and in the streets.

When Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein wrote the original version of The Labour Party: A Marxist Analysis in the mid-1980s, a generation of former radical socialists had recently entered the Labour Party in order to support the Benn leadership challenge, only to find themselves trapped in a rightward moving party, whose leadership openly attacked its left wing members and retreated from the key class battles against Thatcher such as the miners’ strike. The book was aimed at providing an historical understanding of these types of betrayals.

The second edition was published in 1996, just as Blair’s New Labour project, based on the jettisoning of any reference to socialism, was building momentum as a weak and unpopular Tory government staggered to defeat.

The circumstances today are different. A new generation and many thousands of older supporters have joined or rejoined the Labour Party inspired by Corbyn’s leadership. But the sheer enthusiasm for Corbyn’s socialist vision and obvious sincerity, after the years of cynicism and betrayal by Blair and Brown, runs the risk of obscuring the actual history of the Labour Party and laying the blame for past failure solely at the feet of individual treacherous leaders. We need a deeper understanding of the nature of the Labour Party, its role in society, as a guide to action in the years ahead.

The experience of a Corbyn-led Labour government will make all these questions clearer. But if that experience is not to demoralise many of those who are now so hopeful, it is essential that as many people as possible learn the lessons from the past and seek to broaden the knowledge of what is fundamental to reformism and Labour beyond any particular leader or grouping in the party. That is what this book sets out to do, to use history and theory as an aid to the debates that are taking place as we unite against the right and capitalism.

Key questions

We have tried to answer the following key questions:

The politics of the Labour Party
How does its political practice compare to its programme and how have the two developed? How have the right and the left fared in shaping Labour policy?

The influence of leadership
Did Blair change Labour fundamentally, and can Corbyn?

The internal divisions in the Labour Party
What decides the relative strength of the party’s factions? What are the limits on the activities of the left and of the right?

The organisation of the Labour Party
Who controls whom? What are the respective roles of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the National Executive Committee and Conference? What influence do the trade union leaders have on the party, and what influence does the Labour Party have on them? What is the relationship between Labour’s grassroots and Labour in parliament?

The relationship between the Labour Party and struggles in workplaces
What do the Labour leaders say about such struggle? What happens to Labour support during, before and after major periods of class warfare such as 1910–14, 1919–26, 1968–74; 1976–87, 2010-11? Does Labour do well in downturns in resistance or does it benefit from upturns — what is the relationship?

The Labour Left
Who are they? What do they say? How do they see parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity? How do they operate inside the party — through MPs, general management committees, the trade unions, or local councils? How does the Labour left relate to left forces active in workplaces and campaigns? Should revolutionary socialists enter the Labour Party?

The loyalty of workers to the Labour Party in spite of its actions.
Is this loyalty affected by whether Labour is in office or in opposition? Is it affected by the state of the economy — whether it is booming or not? Is loyalty dependent on the ability of the Labour Party to deliver reforms? Can there be reformism without reforms?

How can revolutionary socialists convince the majority of workers to go beyond Labour’s reformism?
What role does a mass revolutionary party and a big rise in the level of class struggle play in this?

This text is the introduction to the new edition of The Labour Party: A Marxist History, published by Bookmarks this month, £14.99. bookmarksbookshop.co.uk