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Why Labour is the Left’s only hope

It’s a debate that has raged on the left since 1900, when an alliance of trade unions and left-wing groups decided that working people needed a political voice and set up the Labour Representation Committee. Is Labour the left’s only hope, or is it a thoroughly reactionary obstacle on the glorious onwards march to socialism?

So why bother wading in to an unresolved century-old debate, you may wonder. Well, for a start the left is at a particularly critical juncture in its history. We face one of the most right-wing governments of modern times, and it is planning a dramatic re-ordering of British society with “Maoist” zeal (as Vince Cable would have it). The left as a whole still remains devoid of any coherent political response. Lefties of all stripes simply cannot ignore Labour as part of any strategy to take on the Government.

The Tories’ shock-and-awe policy programme has, understandably, brought the debate back to life with unusual intensity. Many lefties would still prefer to mate with a cheese grater than sully their wallet with a Labour party card. Tens of thousands of others have wrestled with their conscience and, like Ellie Mae, joined up despite their huge reservations.

In the face of opposition of activists like myself, the modern-day Labour Representation Committee – focal point of the Labour left – recently defeated an attempt at its Conference to water down its commitment to the Party. Meanwhile, after their man won the Labour leadership race and the Party moved closer to their political agenda, soft left pressure group Compass responded in the only rational way possible: by walking away from the Party.

You can see why some lefties might have, at best, an ambivalent attitudes towards Labour. Anyone who has ever heard Tony Benn speak will have heard one of his favourite sayings: “Labour has never been socialist, but it’s always had socialists in it.” It may surprise some of you, but Labour only declared itself ‘socialist’ in 1995 when Tony Blair revised its iconic Clause IV. That was just a sop, because instead of meaning public ownership of the economy, it now effectively meant ‘being nice to people’.

What’s more, any anti-Labour lefty can passionately recite off by heart a whole list of reasons why you’d have to be bonkers to join up. Iraq. Marketising public services. Keeping in place Thatcher’s anti-union laws. Failing to address the huge levels of inequality that exploded in the 1980s. Sucking up to big business. Laying the foundations for the Cameron Project. Being in the same party as the likes of Tony Blair, Alan Milburn, John Hutton and (shudder) the Prince of Darkness himself, Peter Mandelson.

So what’s the case for a lefty activist apparently taking leave of their senses and adding their names to Labour’s membership lists?

The trade union link. The Labour Party is institutionally connected to the trade unions. That’s what links it to millions of working people, and at least gives it the potential to represent their political interests. It is this that makes it a ‘labour’ party.

The Party is dependent on the donations of millions of union members; unions have representatives on the National Executive Committee and the National Policy Forum; they can send delegates to Constituency Labour Parties; they make up a third of the electoral college (thus preventing the most Blairite candidate for the Labour leadership from taking the crown); and they have a major role in selecting prospective Labour candidates.

They don’t always (or often, arguably) use this power effectively: for example, by repeatedly voting against union policies on the NEC or backing right-wing prospective candidates over left-wingers. But that’s largely a battle to be had within the unions. And that’s a far easier battle to win than the huge extra leap of getting them to back an entirely new “workers’” party.

Labour’s right-wing shift can’t be seen in isolation. The left has been hammered the world over by a perfect storm: the rise of the New Right, and the neo-liberal triumphalism that was victorious everywhere after the fall of the Soviet Union. Social democratic parties, Communist Parties, former national liberation movements like the African National Congress – all swung dramatically to the right in the aftermath. If Labour had stuck to a traditional social democratic position, it would have been almost exceptional among mass parties.

Here in Britain, we suffered the repeated defeats of the labour movement – the backbone of the left – at the hands of Thatcherism.

Let’s face it, this claustrophobic right-wing atmosphere has even had a major impact on  the remnants of the hard left. The top rate of tax after Winston Churchill’s last Budget in 1944 was 95%. In the 1970s Labour Party Conference voted through a motion calling for the Party to “formulate a socialist plan of production based on public ownership, with minimum compensation, of the commanding heights of the economy.” You will of course find radical lefties calling for public ownership of the railways, or for a 50% tax band over £100,000 – but rarely anything as far as this. They may want these policies, but they realise it is almost impossible to credibly propose them in a stifling neo-liberal political culture.

That’s not to be defeatist: we can tear down this neo-liberal consensus down and propose alternatives. But don’t kid yourself that a rightward shift is peculiar to Labour. If you do, you’re mixing up symptoms with causes.

All left splits from Labour have ended in disaster – often in far better political circumstances. The Marxist Social Democratic Federation disaffiliated from the LRC in 1901 and disappeared into insignificance while its leader, Henry Hyndman, ended up backing World War I. The Independent Labour Party quit in the early 1930s during the last great crisis of capitalism – and spent the rest of the decade in terminal decline. In the 1980s, the Trotskyist Militant Tendency had 3 MPs, several councillors (and control of Liverpool Council) and around 8,000 members. Its post-Labour incarnation, the Socialist Party, is a poor shadow of its old self. And I won’t even bother talking about Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. Look at its website, for Christ’s sake.

The last election exposed the fact the non-Labour left is going nowhere. We were in the midst of the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. New Labour was desperately unpopular among millions of working-class people: after all, five million voters had abandoned Labour since 1997, with only a million going to the Tories. If the non-Labour left couldn’t thrive then – when?

The Socialist Party’s Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (catchy) got a vote about half, nationally, what left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell got in his one constituency.

Their supporters claim their vote was squeezed because of the threat of a Tory Government. But under what circumstances will their vote not be squeezed? If the Tories are looking like they’re on-course to victory, most militantly anti-Tory voters will opt for Labour. If Labour is coasting to a sweeping victory on the back of massive disgust with the Conservatives (as in 1997), the non-Labour left will similarly lose their appeal.

Supporters of this strategy have to ask themselves: if it has failed in the last hundred years – despite better political conditions – why will it succeed now?

Working-class people are returning to the Labour fold en masse. Labour now has a consistent lead in opinion polls: of around 10 points in some. But while wealthy voters are still sticking with the Coalition parties, the disproportionately working-class voters who abandoned Labour under Blair and Brown are returning in the millions. That’s why YouGov generally has Labour in the early to mid 40s – and that’s before the cuts have hit. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have taken up party cards. In my ward in Hackney, the membership has doubled since the general election.

All lefties have to at least engage with this huge working-class surge into the Labour camp. At the very least, they should recognise that completely writing off the Labour Party is a case of running in the opposite way that the wind is blowing.

New Labour is not the same as the Tories. My position is that the worst Labour Government is better than the best Tory Government. Other lefties will argue that the Tories and New Labour are basically as bad as each other. Many of them are now protesting in defence of Labour’s public spending programmes and its Educational Maintenance Allowance. Similarly, it is farcical to argue that the Tories would ever have introduced the minimum wage – after all, they fought it tooth and nail.

Of course, New Labour’s domestic policies were profoundly disappointing, accepting as they did the Thatcherite consensus. But because Labour remains rooted in the labour movement, the Blair and Brown governments had no choice but to introduce some progressive policies that contrast with anything the Tories would have done.

There is a difference between New Labour and the labour movement. The best way of winding up a Labour lefty like me is to call me a member of New Labour. This is the attitude of the Socialist Party, who went from being members of the Labour Party to standing a candidate against John McDonnell in 2001. They are, of course, the most anti-Labour of the far left factions: they have the bitterness of ex-lovers, and the zealousness of the convert.

The reality is Labour lefties like myself have – as well as taking on the Tories – dedicated our political lives to fighting New Labour. Millions of party members and affiliated trade unionists opposed privatisations and illegal wars as passionately as any member of the SWP. Take Iraq. Such was the strength of feeling in the Party that – despite the infamously supine nature of the Parliamentary Labour Party – 139 Labour MPs voted against the catastrophic invasion. British bombs only rained down on Baghdad because of Tory votes.

Joining the Party does not mean you have signed up to the right-wing policies and betrayals of the leadership. Far from it: it means you are joining thousands of other activists determined to fight for socialist policies in the only real political avenue open for the left.

The Blairites are in retreat. The defeat of their man in the 2010 leadership was a genuine shock to the hardcore Blairite faction, and it’s left them extremely demoralised. Once they pulled the party’s ideological levers; now they’re in retreat. The likes of John Hutton and Alan Milburn have re-invented themselves as Tory advisers. Alan Johnson’s resignation as Shadow Chancellor was yet another set back for the recalcitrant Blairistas. That doesn’t mean the party is now ruled by lefties: it certainly isn’t. But the Party is in flux, and it’s all to play for in a way that it hasn’t been for a very long time.

How long would it take for a left party to get as many MPs as the Labour left? It’s only on the Labour ticket that we’ve got MPs like John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and Katy Clark. Non-Labour socialists often call on them to quit Labour and stand as candidates for a new socialist party. That’s what the hugely popular and effective constituency MP (and one-time recipient of the Spectator’s ‘Backbencher of the Year Award’) David Nellist did in 1992, and he lost.

We’ve also got a broader grouping of genuinely progressively-minded MPs, like newcomer Lisa Nandy, for example.

How long would it take a new left party to get as many MPs?

And bear in mind that, while the RMT was expelled from the Labour Party and the FBU disaffiliated, both unions still maintain Parliamentary groups made up exclusively of – yes, you guessed it – Labour MPs.

What about being a single-issue activist? There are a number of hugely inspiring single-issue campaigns and activists out there. Take UK Uncut as an example: it’s achieved the fairly unlikely feat of driving tax avoidance to the top of the political agenda.

But if you want to push for a coherent political alternative to the status quo, then you have to join a political party. In any case, single-issue campaigners need political sympathisers, at the very least within Labour. That’s why the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had a dedicated Labour strategy in the 1950s. It paid off when, in 1960, the Party voted to support unilateral disarmament – prompting right-wing Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell to pledge to “fight, fight and fight again to save the Party we love”.

What about the Green Party? The Greens have a number of left-wing policies, some genuinely progressive activists and even a Member of Parliament. Aren’t they a potential new home for the left?

For a start, it’s debatable whether the Greens are going anywhere. Their electoral total in 2010 wasn’t much higher than 2005 – despite the fact they stood 128 more candidates. In my constituency, Hackney North and Stoke Newington – one of the great Green strongholds – their vote more than halved. This is overlooked because a part of their stagnating (or, in real terms, sharply declining) vote was concentrated in Brighton Pavillion, electing them their first MP.

Secondly, it depends what your politics are based on. My politics are based on class and the labour movement. The Greens’ politics obviously aren’t.

Thirdly, they’re a real ragtag bunch – ranging from liberals to different shades of socialists. Their manifesto includes the following commitment“End the corrupting effects of big private and Trade Union donations to political parties, and bring in a fair system of state funding.” In other words, they are committed to driving trade unions out of political life, equating the democratic organisations of working people with big business as a “corrupting” influence.

Fourthly, look abroad for examples of what happens when the Greens come to power: particularly Germany, and Ireland – where they helped implement one of the most extreme austerity programmes of any modern Western state. For parties whose shared USP is a progressive alternative to social democracy, this is not promising.

None of this is to deny that there are thousands of fantastic, committed lefties outside of the Labour Party, and that will always be the case. A debate that has lasted 111 years is not going to die any time soon. But – as arrogant as it sounds – I strongly believe that the case for lefties joining us in our struggle for socialism in the Labour Party is unanswerable.

For a lot of people, the terrible betrayals of the New Labour period will make becoming the proud new owner of a glossy Party card one step too far. For everyone else, you can join here.


  1. Josiah says:

    I’m a Labour party member and have been thinking about joining the Greens for some time. But your point about class and labour makes a lot of sense – there is no popular mass working-class movement behind the Green party. I might think again before jumping ship!

  2. Peter Garbutt says:

    The Green Party’s policies are based on the premise that Capital is the root cause of our economic and environmental problems. As long as Labour cosies up to Capital, they aren’t even ON the Left.
    There is a burgeoning connection between the Green Party and Trades Unions. The TUC’s Million Climate Jobs document was written with the active co-operation of the Green Party. Our desire to reform political funding is not born of a hatred of working people, but of a love of a fair and equitable democracy.
    The membership of the Green Party has risen sharply since the 2010 General Election. Many people – those that HAVEN’T forgotten the betrayals of Labour – have been inspired by the actions and energy of our new MP, and more, by our principled policies.
    The actions of Green Parties in Germany and Ireland serve merely to remind us that we must always retain those principles.

  3. Adam Ramsay says:

    Owen, Owen Owen, this is a great piece, and pretty convincing. But not quite convincing enough. Firstly, I don’t think that you have to pretend that the Labour Party won’t have any role on defeating the Tories in order to not think that the political energy of the left is best spent outside the Labour Party (or, I might say, in the Green Party).

    Here are two things you haven’t yet convinced me of:

    1) Is the best way to pull Labour to the left really from within the Labour Party? You haven’t made any case for this.

    2) In order to change Labour as it is, you will need to rise up its greasy poll (or those who you support will). This will almost inevitably mean campaigning for (or at least in some way supporting) politicians I would see as centrist/right wing. Do you really want to dedicate political time to doing this in the hope you can secure some long term change? That seems quite a gamble.

    I have utmost respect for people trying to fight for the Labour Party. But it really isn’t for me.


  4. Daniel Blaney says:

    fair questions from Adam Ramsay

    “1) Is the best way to pull Labour to the left really from within the Labour Party? You haven’t made any case for this.”

    Yes – the defeat of David Miliband took place inside the party. The selections of Ken Livingstone for Mayor, John Cryer, Lisa Nandy, Emily Thornberry, Katy Clark, Linda Riordan for Labour MPs took place inside the party. The more people on the left inside the party, the better the parliamentary party will be. Labour MPs, even those not on the left, listen to the strength of feeling within their local parties. external pressure matters sure, but it is effective local labour parties that can engage with their communities, feed the public priorities to labour representatives and add an ideological angle in a relevant fashion.

    “2) In order to change Labour as it is, you will need to rise up its greasy poll (or those who you support will). This will almost inevitably mean campaigning for (or at least in some way supporting) politicians I would see as centrist/right wing. Do you really want to dedicate political time to doing this in the hope you can secure some long term change? That seems quite a gamble.”

    no the greasy pole is not necessary. to say so misreads the internal dynamic. the labour party is a huge party and with a difficult, stroppy and tenacious left wing. mandatory reselection of MPs wasn’t won by the greasy pole, nor was the electoral college being established for the leader, nor was the defeat of David Miliband, nor was the selection of Ken Livingstone. the dynamic within the party is reflected in the ideological spread of its members and activists. labour needs a stronger left wing.

    in any case, dedicating political time in the hope of achieving political change further down the line is all part of being one citizen amongst six billion. the british labour party is a more significant thing in that huge world than a further small group establishing themselves on the british left

  5. Robert says:

    I do love Labour people telling us about the LRC in the 1900, about the left being Labour the nasty Tories.

    Labour started the welfare state, not really then pushed it ahear, labour built social houses once upon a time, labour ensure the sick the disabled and the poor have a life yes they did once upon a time.

    Also Labour had to change to get into power otherwise the Tories would have been the only party, yep thats true, so what did you do, built sod all housing on average 200 houses a year, the lowest since 1940’s. Welfare state is being ripped apart as labour and the Tories respond to warnings from America about welfare and health care, America cannot gets it feet under the table.

    I have been in the labour party for 46 years, twenty years ago I had an accident which left me with massive spinal injuries, no bowel function, no bladder function, no sexual function, and chronic pain, and I have been told I’m fit to work, when I asked how do you fail to work, I was told death.

    The sad fact is as a labour movement for the poorest and the vulnerable labour is not the party for you, it tried to defeat the Tories not with socialism, but Toryism.

    Labour took over from the Tories, and it ended things like income support the life blood of the welfare state.

    Nothing left of the 1900 LRC, Thatcherism now rules the roast and Miliband and his tribe are scared stiff to be called left or red of socialist.

  6. Alfie Stirling says:

    As much as I would love to have read a convincing piece of writing inspiring me to join the Labour Party, I could not help but notice the two glaring deficiencies in the arguments put forward.

    The first as already been identified by Adam Ramsay: “Is the best way to pull Labour to the left really from within the Labour Party? You haven’t made any case for this”. I take Daniel Blaney’s points but find them to be slightly clutching at straws and over celebrating what are actually fantastically minor victories of the internal-labour-left. Sorry Daniel, just my opinion.

    The second is the inconsistent themes running through this piece and an apparent confusion of in its overall thesis. Far from making a case for Labour being the lefts only hope, a third of this article is committed to simply arguing that Labour is in fact even a left wing party and subsequently asking for it not to be ignored. A further third is committed to advocating greater coherence of some sort amongst Britain left in general. Both arguments are valid and, I think, correct. But they read as though spoken from the mouth of a defensive Labour supporter who he knows the true extent of his party’s horrendous social, economic and military record.

    It all begs the question; is the truly fundamental reason for your advocacy of the Labour Party not even just a little bit grounded in contingent tribalism? Surely a better article would make the case for increased alliances among the left and not preach on what brand name it should manifest itself under.

  7. Galen10 says:

    I’m afraid I agree with Alfie and Adam. Many of us don’t consider Labour (and still less the nauseating New Labour project) to be genuinely “of the left” any more.

    I’d be more convinced by the “only way to change it is from within” argument if I actually thought Ed Miliband was taking REAL measures to de-toxify the brand. He just isn’t. Some limited progress has been made, but not nearly radical enough and not nearly fast enough.

    The sad truth is Labour has had so many chances to make a difference, and fumbled them all. Shackling yourself to the Unions isn’t the only game in town. “Real” progressive social democratic policies can win you support, but it isn’t going to happen when you are viewed as a bunch of crypto-Thatcherites who spent much of the last 13 years being outflanked from the left by the LD’s and even (porca miseria) the Tories on issues such as civil liberties.

    If you want to be a progressive, radical force in British politics you need to espouse progressive, radical policies. We’re still waiting……..

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