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Don’t let the Labour Right tell fairy stories about the 1980s

There is a remarkable article on Labour Uncut by Kevin Meagher that perfectly illustrates a mythology which has for some time infected parts of the Labour Party.

Kevin writes:

Labour’s history is pockmarked with prolonged periods of opposition following ejection from office; none more so than during those 18 wasted years in the 80s and 90s.

The explanation for that generation in the wilderness is familiar enough: the party’s pitch to the country was tone deaf. On the economy, law and order, defence and a hundred other issues Labour had nothing to say that chimed with what people wanted to hear.

The party was more bothered with pleasing its own fissiparous cliques; the wannabe Dave Sparts, the bedsit revolutionaries, the local government crackpots who refused to set a rate, the headbangers of Militant.

The “loony left” were responsible for torpedoing Labour’s reputation and sinking the party’s chances with their puerile antics in Labour councils up and down the country and through their reckless control of the party’s policy-making machinery.

Fringe causes were put before mainstream concerns, with many in the party seriously accepting the flawed logic that stapling together a collection of special interest groups would create a counterweight to Thatcher’s electoral coalition of aspirational voters.

No prizes for guessing how successful that idea was.

Margaret Thatcher’s path to power was paved by a Labour party finding excuses to focus on anything other than the bread and butter issues that actually mattered to voters. She did not lead a coup d’état; she was elected – time after time – because Labour was unelectable: unfocused and incredible.

All that shroud waving and gesture politics during the 80s had the effect of sapping Labour’s voter appeal, pushing away would-be supporters who abhorred the party’s obsession with fringe concerns.

Let us first acknowledge the tenuous connection to truth in Kevin’s rant, the left in the party in the 1980s did too uncritically accept the idea that if Labour was more left wing, then it would win an election.

However, he conveniently overlooks a number of facts. Firstly, that the most obvious cause of Labour’s defeat in 1983 was not the left, but the cynical disloyalty of those who split from labour and formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981, and which boosted the Liberal/SDP alliance to 25% of the vote in 1983. There is an exaggerated folk-legend in the Labour Party about how dangerous the Militant Tendency was, but it was the centre-right group within the Labour Party, the Social Democratic Alliance, who went to the Tory press with lurid accusations that eleven members of the NEC were communists (including Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot), who campaigned against Labour in the 1979 European elections, and who announced that they would stand candidates against Labour in the next general election, leading to their expulsion in 1980.

Certainly the fractious nature of Labour Party politics in the 1980s damaged the reputation of the party with the electorate, but this damaging factionalism was exhibited by both left and right at that time, and the language and general temper of Kevin Meagher’s article is all too reminiscent of the more foam flecked excesses of that period.

In truth, the Labour Party in the 1980s wasn’t wracked by factionalism due to poor discipline: the sharp debates occured because all sections of the party were struggling to cope with a changed world. Firstly there was a crisis of identity, as the traditional iconography and social expectations of the labour movement were challenged by cultural and structural changes in society.  It is hard now to appreciate how culturally homogeneous working class life was as recently as the 1960s, and this ubiquitous working cultural was bound up with Labour’s appeal. This had been transformed by immigration, womens’ rights, gay rights, youth rebellion, and the gains in social mobility and access to higher education for working people that Labour’s reforms had allowed.

We should acknowledge to their credit that centre-right figures like Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland were progressive with regard to these equalities issues, and indeed Crosland once remarked that the Bevanite left were sometimes more socially conservative than a bench of bishops. Nevertheless, the energy and iconoclasm needed to challenge the white, male, straight conformity of the 1970s labour movement came from the left. I must admit that I found the arrogance of Kevin Meagher, a white, male self-employed communications professional, mocking Dianne Abbott, and saying that abortion is not an important political issue a rather distasteful flashback to the way that issues of race, gender and sexual orientation were dismissed back in the 1970s.

But more fundamentally, the economic paradigm that Labour had pursued since the 1940s had come off the rails. The bankruptcy of the City of New York in 1975 had shown the limits of Keynesianism, and James Callaghan’s maiden speech as Labour leader to conference at Blackpool in 1976  announced a decisive break from the pre-existing orthodoxy in the party.

“The cosy world we were told would go on forever, where full employment would be guaranteed by a stroke of the chancellor’s pen – that cosy world is gone … We used to think you could spend your way out of a recession …. By cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that option no longer exists, and that insofar as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion … by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by higher unemployment…”

This was acknowledged as a turning point in British politics by right wing economist Milton Freidman on the TV show, The Money Programme , in December the same year:

The most hopeful sign I have seen in Britain was the talk which your Labour Prime Minister gave to labour conference at the end of September. That was, I think, one of the most remarkable talks – speeches – which any government leader has ever given”

Callaghan did not receive the customary standing ovation from delegates, and many of the cabinet ministers and NEC members on the platform didn’t clap at all. The next day, Chancellor Denis Healey, speaking from the floor as an ordinary delegate as he had been voted off the NEC, announced that the government were going to the IMF for a loan, and would be negotiating based on further spending cuts and pay restraint. His speech was interrupted by denunciations, boos and calls for his resignation.

The explicit abandonment by Callaghan of Keynesianism, mentored by his proto-Thatcherite son in law, Peter Jay, caused an ideological crisis in the labour movement, not because he was wrong, but because he was in a sense correct. The worldwide economic crisis had indeed revealed the almost literal bankruptcy of the British economy, with a crisis precipitated by the money markets in 1976 by a campaign of destabilisation pushing Sterling to almost collapse. The wage push from the trade unions really was contributing to a decline in profitability, and if the employers were losing money then the assumptions that underpinned the workplace militancy of the era were very fragile.

This took place against a background of Britain’s secular decline as a political, military and economic power; and an ideological weariness in the cross party Keynsian consensus. British society was struggling with growing cultural diversity, not only through immigration, but also through youth fashions, music and sexual and gender liberation. Meanwhile the British middle classes were traumatised by the loss of identity as an imperial power, and the self-understood mission of the British state was challenged by entry into the Common market, and the crisis of legitimacy of the Kingdom’s control of the six counties of Northern Ireland.

Faced with recession, rising unemployment and social crisis, the ideological framework of the trade unions was revealed as inadequate; and the outlook of the left was either trapped in nostalgia for a cloth cap Britain of yesteryear, where further and deeper nationalisation was an assumed panacea; or engaged in ‘lifestyleist’ social movements that made a point of separating from the social mainstream.

But it is also important to understand that the centre-right of the party were equally adrift from reality. Anthony Crosland’s 1956 book, The Future of Socialism is more often quoted nowadays than read, but it is a radical blueprint for a reformed and more egalitarian Britain. Central to Crosland’s assumptions was that state intervention would be able to sustain continual and stable economic growth. In the absence of such growth and in a climate of economic and social instability then the egalitarian reforms and welfare programmes could not be financed.

The animosity in the Party debates of that era was characterised by the fact that left and right were having different conversations. Callaghan’s abandonment of the Party’s economic programme, and Healey’s IMF inspired austerity measures disoriented everyone, and led to a siege mentality in the Party’s centre-right as they felt that Labour MPs were being disloyally vilified – and in some cases deselected – when in their view the government had no choice, and they were aware that the alternative was Thatcher. But the traditional centre-right responded not by seeking to intellectually adapt their vision of social democracy to the changed reality, but instead by waging trench warfare against the left; fetishising the expulsion of the Militant and campaigning for the OMOV rule change, and thereby feeding the mainstream media narrative of Labour as being a party unfit to govern.

Admittedly, after losing the 1979 election, and in the lead up to the victory of the left at the Wembley Conference in 1981 and beyond, there was a crusading spirit in the left that dismissed the last Labour government as treacherous, without any recognition that the traditional faith of the left in nationalisation and state led economic recovery were now less than plausible, and that the leftist politics they were pursuing appealed to too narrow an electoral constituency to win an election.

However, it is entirely wrong to polarise this complex mix into a cautionary tale of heroes and villains. During the early 1980s all wings of the labour movement were disoriented, and the destructive factionalism was fed by both the right and the left.

Kevin Meagher’s article is needlessly provocative, and his factional approach seems almost deliberately to seek the sort of polarising row that would damage the Party electorally; but almost worse than that is his condescending approach.

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