What is ‘the left’ in British politics?

In this edited collection that I am putting together with Matt Worley, the subtitle of the collection is ‘The British Far Left, 1956 to the Present’. In this collection, we have chosen to use the term ‘the far left’ to encompass all of the political currents to the left of the Labour Party. This includes the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Trotskyist left, the anti-revisionist (Maoist and Stalinist) groups, anarchist/left libertarian groups, the intellectuals and activists grouped around particular journals (such as New Left Review for example) and progressive social movements, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the anti-fascist movement (to name some of those discussed in the collection). Some may dispute that there is much connection between the various political currents, in particular many anarchists would object to being associated with the Communist/Leninist left, but we believe there is enough common ground for their inclusion (especially as anarchists were involved in several social movements and campaigns alongside other leftist groups).

We have chosen the term ‘the far left’ because it was felt that ‘the left’ is open to too much variation (as seen on Wikipedia). In more mainstream politics, the term ‘the left’ is often used to describe Labour Party and the trade union movement, as well as those on the periphery of the Labour Party, such as those tied to publications like Tribune and the New Statesman. In Gerald Kaufman’s edited collection on the British left from 1966 (simply called The Left), Llew Gardner distinguished between the ‘orthodox left’, who accepted the Labour Party as the party of reform, and the ‘fringe left’, those who rejected the reformist route of Labour and whom Gardner described as a ‘hotch-potch of self-styled Marxists, frustrated revolutionaries and inveterate malcontents’ (p. 116). Kenneth O. Morgan’s 2011 history of the British left (titled Ages of Reform : Dawns and Downfalls of the British Left) places the Labour Party at the centre of left-wing politics since the late nineteenth century, but argues that the left-wing ideas and policies of Labour are more progressive, rather socialist (pp. xi-xii). Even within the Labour Party, there are those who identify as left-wing and those who don’t – several groups within the Party, such as the Tribune group, the Socialist Campaign Group and The Chartist group all self-identify as left-wing in some way.

But many critics of the Labour Party from the left have argued that Labour can no longer be considered on the left, with the term ‘the left’ often used to mean the groups to the left of the Labour Party. As the term ‘the left’ is ambiguous in this way, others have used the term ‘the far left’ to distinguish between Labour and the other parties on the left, such as the Communist Party and the various Trotskyist groups. In his 1987 book, John Callaghan uses the term ‘the far left’ to describe the ‘Leninist left’ of the CPGB, the Socialist Workers Party, the International Marxist Group, Militant and the Workers Revolutionary Party (as well as their many off-shoots) (p. viii). In the introduction to David Widgery’s 1976 edited collection of primary sources, The Left in Britain , Peter Sedgwick described those to the left of the Labour Party as the ‘independent Left’, which incorporated the intellectuals of the new left, the social movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s (primarily the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and the ‘sectarian’ political groups, such as the CPGB and the Club/Socialist Labour League. Sedgwick wrote that the high time of this ‘independent Left’ was from 1956 to ‘roughly 1970’, but suggests that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this ‘independent Left’ was overtaken by the ‘revolutionary Left’ of the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group (p. 35). In regards to these far left groups, the Communist Party’s Betty Reid wrote in a 1969 pamphlet Ultra-Leftism in Britain that the CPGB made ‘no exclusive claim to be the only force on the left’, but dismissed the groups to the left of the CPGB as the ‘ultra-left’, with Reid outlining the ultra-left as groups that were Trotskyist, anarchist or syndicalist or those that ‘support the line of the Communist Party of China’ (pp. 7-8).

As I wrote about the British fascist far right, definitions can be tricky. In the current era, can George Galloway’s Respect be seen as part of the British left? Some are also asking whether the Greens can be considered a left-wing party in the UK. In Australia, the Greens have seemed to occupy a ‘progressive’ space to the left of the Australian Labor Party in some areas (although it is highly disputed whether they can be considered on ‘the left’ – see the excellent blog Left Flank for the best discussion of this) and this is still a possibility for the UK Greens (although the UK voting system makes it less likely for the Greens to have the same electoral impact at the national level). In the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party also work as ‘progressive’ alternatives to Labour, but not many would call them part of ‘the left’.

So who is ‘the left’? Is it different from ‘the far left’? Thoughts anyone?

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