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Time to move on from the 1980s, Lord Hattersley

If I were official keeper of the Croslandite flame, easily the most renowned contemporary advocate of that standpoint, I’d be humble enough to ponder why my preferred brand of politics carried such little traction in Britain in 2017. As a serious partisan of social democracy, I would ask why ideas of the stripe that until recently dominated Labour now fail to enthuse its membership.

Might that indicate shortcomings in the ideas themselves? Or perhaps certain failings on the part of those who now propagate them? Why are adherents so frequently parodied as out-of-touch Centrist Dads or personally venal baby boomer neoliberals?

The very last thing I would do is to dust off memories of the Bennite years, and try to shoehorn developments of the last two years into a prism completely inapplicable nearly four decades later. That, unfortunately, is what former deputy leader Roy Hattersley unconvincingly attempts in his widely publicised article in the Observer this weekend, which will deeply disappoint those of us whose memories of his past role are better than that.

The piece is little more than a nasty paint-by-numbers hatchet job on Momentum, timed to coincide with the start of voting to fill vacancies on the National Executive Committee, in which three Momentum-backed candidates are standing. No effort is spared to invoke the atmosphere of the Paris in 1793, the Beijing of 1966 or – most alarmingly of all – an inner London Constituency Labour Party general management committee circa 1983, complete with the Millies selling papers outside the building.

Momentum, Hattersley luridly insists, is ‘a party within a party’, which is ‘dedicated to moving Labour to the far left’, and ready to perpetrate ‘subversion’, ‘invasion’ and ‘extremism’ to that end.

Corbyn’s revolutionary guard’ are depicted as ‘aggressive newcomers’, who ‘do not believe in parliamentary democracy’. They are ‘intolerant’, and wilfully preparing a ‘bloodbath’ and a ‘purge’.

The level of invective renders rational discussion somewhat difficult. The concrete issues under discussion, remember, are simply local government selection meetings in Muswell Hill, and who gets the white knuckle ride power trip of taking minutes for Wavertree CLP.

The worst that could happen to Claire Kober is that next year she will no longer lead Haringey council. Yet Lord Hattersley inflates the hyperbole to the point where the reader might have visions or her being carted away in a tumbril to be publicly guillotined outside Tottenham Hale Bus Station, on the orders of some putative Momentum-dominated Crouch End Committee of Public Safety.

This is politics. Parties have internal elections and candidate selections. Sometimes newcomers win and sometimes incumbents lose. But what democrat would have things any other way?

The irony is that, while I have never been an adherent of Lord Hattersley’s vision of what Labour should be, I have always accorded him a certain level of respect as one of the Labour left’s more substantial critics.

Lord Hattersley eschewed and even spoke out against the worst Blairite vacuities of the 1990s and 2000s. To his credit, he was never intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.

His 1987 book Choose Freedom, although largely a popular restatement of the philosophy of John Rawls, endures as one of the best outlines of social democratic principle within the Labour intellectual tradition.

As a genuine egalitarian, Lord Hattersley should even have welcomed the current leadership’s efforts to reinstate the centrality of equality as a goal for the left, which came close to disappearing in the New Labour era. Indeed, the last manifesto contained much of which his primary inspiration, Anthony Crosland, would have approved.

Instead, he indulges in inane polemic, centred on the widely-touted contention that Momentum is somehow Militant Tendency reincarnate. Even to make that case is seriously to misread the nature of both organisations. Most obviously, Momentum does not espouse revolutionary socialism.

The number of Trotskyists in Momentum cannot make up more than one or two percent of its 30,000-strong membership, and many of them are more likely to badmouth Jon Lansman than bend unflinchingly to his alleged ruthless democratic centralist will to power.

Part of me suspects it would be a good thing if more Momentumites did have stronger grounding in socialist theory, if only because that would make them less prone to promulgating occasional gaffes on social media. Come to think of it, they could do a lot worse than read some of Hattersley’s better work.

The reality remains that today’s mass membership Labour Party is more socially representative than it has been at any point in my lifetime. Far from facing ‘the greatest crisis in its history’, it is now on the cusp of perhaps its greatest ever opportunity.

If we are to seize it, the last thing we need is to do the timewarp again. Forget the tortured analogies, Roy. It isn’t 1980 anymore.

11 Comments

  1. Mervyn Hyde says:

    Roy Hattersley was unimpressive during his day, but has altogether lost all semblance of reality today.

    I would challenge him to make a presentation in front of the audience he denounces and listen to their response, he might even be surprised as to how moderate they really are.

    But then being a Neo-Liberal which even he didn’t know he was at the time, smears and lies are their only defence.

  2. There is a lack of accuracy in in the claims of resemblance in Momentum and Militant. The obvious differences are too stark. Momentum and Jon Lansman are out of the Bennite wing of the party which survived the Blair New Labour years. Militant was a Lenninst revolutionary socialist party that infiltrated the Labour Party. Unless Hattersley wants to claim that Tony Benn was really a revolutionary Trotskyist it becomes a little silly.

    Even sillier is Hattersley does not acknowledge that it was Lansman who stood up to the Leninist sects infiltrating Momentum by offering real internal democracy inside the group rather than letting the revolutionaries ‘committee’ the group to death. That he upset the sects will show in the NEC elections where he will have less votes than the other two, Yasmine and Rachel, on the left slate.

    1. James Martin says:

      So Lansman has offered “real internal democracy” inside the plc (trading under the name ‘Momentum’) that he is the sole owner of? How does that work then Danny? By having a guaranteed seat on the Momentum plc board through this t’internet blog that no one else can challenge for? By being the Momentum plc candidate for the NEC elections without any vote of the members? By Momentum plc members being seen as little more than a stage army to move around by those that know best? Funny idea of democracy you have there Danny, and not one that as an original Bennite myself I recognise.

      1. I’m not sure James, after all these years OMOV seems to working remarkably well for the left inside the party. Control by a vanguard, whether Leninist or Blairite is hopefully a thing of the past. Funny how well Blair’s New Labour first stole and then used the idea of democratic centralism from the Leninist sects. Do you really want Momentum to be under some sort of control by the sects?

        1. James Martin says:

          Well I’m not a Momentum member or supporter Danny, that decision was made when Jackie Walker was hung out to dry by Lansman and other Momentum leaders who buckled in the face of a vile racist political lynching, so who controls it is for the members of Momentum and not me to decide, although shamefully most Momentuim people seem to be content to have it as a depoliticised privately controlled plc by Lansman himself. Very revealing that you raise the standard right wing bogeyman of ‘Leninist sects’ to attack those who criticise Lansman’s loose grasp of democracy and then mention OMOV, is that how you selected Lansman to be the Momentum candidate on the NEC grassroots alliance slate then Danny, as I must have missed that?

          1. I’m afraid I am not a member of Momentum James so I cannot answer your question on how Lansman was chosen. What I can claim is to having first hand experience of one of the Leninist sects many years ago. I do believe it was important for Lansman to sideline them from Momentum’s leadership because otherwise we would be facing another Militant like entryism of revolutionary socialists into the Labour Party. As it is Momentum is capable of being both a means to solidify the Labour left’s control of the party and add something considerable to the next election in their campaigning expertise. Of course if I were from one of the sects I would be rather upset that I wasn’t given the chance to recruit inside the organization. But that obviously produces the answer that if you want to be part of a mass movement go build one your self. the last one to do that was Gerry Healy back in the sixties where his Young Socialists were far larger than anything the Labour Party had in a youth section although he did get that through entryism.

  3. Richard MacKinnon says:

    What a beautiful irony. A puffed up old Labour Lord, in this case, Baron Hattersley, of Sparkbrook, who it appears is never tired of reminding us of how proud he is of his socialist traditions. Now bound by duty, to pronounce on the dangers posed to his beloved party by the latest left wing fad: Momentum. That in itself is as good a comic routine as I can remember. The good baron even claims to support a British republic (see wikipedia).
    But that is not the end of this joke; the funniest thing of all is, he is right. I cannot wait for the next episode.

  4. Peter Rowlands says:

    Yes, I also had some time for Hattersley in his attempts to stand up to Blairism, but he clearly does not understand what Momentum is about and is I fancy being manipulated by the right. The mild social democratic manifesto that is all that Momentum can be accused of wanting to implement is after all not so very different from much of what I presume he supported in his younger days.If he thinks it is perhaps he can tell us how.

  5. Karl Stewart says:

    It was a strange article by Hattersley.

    Reading his alarm, it seems as if he’s got the idea into his head that Momentum is exactly the same as the Militant Tendency.

    Militant was a small, tightly-organised command-type structured organisation, with a religious-type of commitment to a specific sect of Trotskyism.

    Momentum is a much, much larger and far more diverse network of activists, with a range of left-wing politics, far more left-wing social-democratic than anything approaching Marxism.

  6. Tony says:

    To his credit, Hattersley does oppose Trident replacement:

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/mar/05/comment.politics

  7. Martin Rudland says:

    Hattersley’s Observer article came across to me as a mainly very unpleasant set of invalid views. Malicious came to mind. Also agenda driven so that logic, valid reasoning true representations were not the order of Hattersley’s outpourings.
    Speechless – well almost !
    The establishment are clearly across the board worried that the public will see the full Integrity and Strength of a man of insight of the oppression of the real workers in our society.
    Also politicos will then have too high a level to try to live up to !!!

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