Searching for Socialism: the Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn, Colin Leys and Leo Panitch, Verso £8.99

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Searching for Socialism is a history of the Labour Party from the 1970s until 2019. Its authors, the Canadian academic Leo Panitch and British author Colin Leys, have condensed their 2000 book, The End of Parliamentary Socialism, to form the first five chapters. The rest of the book consists of new material on Labour under Blair, Brown, Miliband and Corbyn.
The book focuses on the various attempts to make the Labour Party more democratic and, in turn, to try to democratise the state and wider society. As the authors point out, this is an important question for socialists. As Panitch and Leys suggest, social democratic parties face immense pressures to govern in the interests of the nation as a whole. They are compelled to represent capitalist interests as well as those of the working class, even though the two are diametrically opposed. This has implications for the relationship between the MPs and the membership.
However, there have been attempts to counter this throughout the party’s history. In the 1970s, a new left emerged within the party. Its key figure was Tony Benn, who most clearly argued that Labour should be a mass party, linked to the social movements and militant workers’ struggles. However, after his failed attempt to win the deputy leadership of the party in 1981, Benn and others were marginalised.
Then leader Neil Kinnock successfully argued that what Labour needed was to win elections and get Thatcher out at all costs — although of course he never did win a general election. The energy of the new left also tended to be sapped by the “unending party committees and conferences” necessary to try to change the party from the inside in the face of relentless opposition from the right. In order for Tony Blair to push through the New Labour project in the 1990s, he needed to crush the notion that the party could somehow act as a vehicle through which ordinary people could play a role in running society.
By tightly controlling the candidate selection process, he made it virtually impossible for new left wing MPs to get elected. This reduced the membership of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs. The issue of who should vote for the leader has often been a point of contention.
In the 1980s, Kinnock favoured a “one member one vote” system, rather than one weighted in favour of the votes of MPs and affiliated unions. He assumed that the less active members who would be enfranchised would be more moderate than the unions. Ironically, however, an expansion of the numbers of people who could vote for the leader actually favoured Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign in 2015.
Panitch and Leys rightly outline the key reasons for the disaster of the 2019 general election: Labour’s position on Brexit; Corbyn’s efforts to appear statesmanlike and attacks from the media including baseless accusations of antisemitism.
Here they slightly under-emphasise just how big a problem Labour’s shift towards backing a second referendum on Brexit was, especially in parts of the country where high Leave votes combined with the feeling that people’s votes were taken for granted by Labour.
Searching for Socialism is extremely articulate and well researched. It should be widely read by socialists both within the Labour Party and outside. The book’s strength is that it puts the movement around Corbyn in a historical context. However, its final paragraphs, entitled “not a conclusion”, offer little way forward. Panitch and Leys state that “the route to socialism does not lie through the Labour Party”.
They see no future in attempts to build an alternative parliamentary party, especially after the failure of Syriza in Greece. They are also sceptical about the revolutionary left. Instead they call for “new political forms”, a point that Panitch further emphasised in a recent online discussion with Alex Callinicos. Panitch and Leys are impressed by Momentum, the organisation set up by Lansman and others in 2015. They also particularly like The World Transformed, a festival running alongside Labour Party conferences that has acted as a space for socialist education and culture as well as discussion and debate.
However, entirely understandably, their book says very little about how these organisations could form the basis of something that could really confront the root causes of the multiple global capitalist crises we face today.