Seamus Milne

Corbyn, Labour and the limits of the British far left

This is something that I’ve been playing with while trying to write the intro to our second volume on the British far left’s history, titled Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 vol. II and to be published through Manchester University Press in 2017. Parts of it may or may not end up in the final version, but I thought I’d post this while the topic is still being debated…

jeremy-corbyn-john-mcdonnell

While putting together our second edited volume dedicated to the history of the British far left, we have witnessed a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s stint as leader of the Labour Party. This has, in turn, brought a renewed interest in the far left’s history.

Corbyn’s victory in July 2015 had been on the back on a wave of enthusiasm amongst different sections of the Labour Party membership – trade unionists, young people, those who flirted with the Greens and other minor parties, working class members, and, of course, refugees from the British far left. Many on the far left had written off the Labour Party as unreformable in recent years, but Corbyn’s entry into the leadership contest after the 2015 election made a number of the Party’s leftist critics reassess their analysis of Labour.

The election of Corbyn as Labour leader seemed to many to overturn the assumed position of the far left since the advent of New Labour in the 1990s. From Militant Labour (later the Socialist Party of England and Wales) to the Revolutionary Communist Party, it was presumed that the Labour Party was unsalvageable, a bourgeois party that had abandoned the working class. Entrism was left to the rump of Militant and the other groups began a long line of alternative electoral vehicles to Labour – Socialist Alliance, Respect, No2EU, TUSC, the Left List (for example). Admittedly, some groups, such as the Communist Party of Britain, still called a Labour vote at general elections, but asked people to metaphorically hold their nose while doing so. But the initial period after Corbyn’s victory seemed to suggest that there was political life left in Labour, awoken from its slumber by the thousands of veteran activists from the social movements of the 2000s that Corbyn had been involved in, primarily Stop the War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Unite Against Fascism, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

However as the last year has proved, trying to reform the outlook and membership base of Labour Party (which has been the intention of many of those supporting Corbyn) while trying to maintain the emphasis on electoralism (which has been the focus of the Party since 1945 at least) has brought the Party to near schism. Looking at the long history of the relationship between the British far left and the Labour Party, it seems that the lessons of the 1960s (when the IMG and IS became entities in their own right) or the 1990s (when Militant Labour had its ‘open turn’) might have to be learnt all over again. Entrism has its limits and it is possibly far better for the far left to be social forces outside the Labour Party putting pressure from without than to be marginalised while attempting to apply pressure from within. Since the Labour Party refused to affiliate with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the 1920s, the far left has had to negotiate how much to work with (or within) Labour and how much to differentiate and present an alternative.

The Communist Party of Great Britain had sought affiliation with the Labour Party several times during the inter-war period, but after its last attempt failed in 1945-46, the CPGB devised another way to influence the Labour Party and bring forward the future possibility of a Labour-Communist alliance. This influence would come through the structures of the trade union bureaucracy. Most other groups on the far left looked to seek influence in the trade unions at rank-and-file level, but wrote off the higher echelons of the trade unions as reformist and too conservative. However this strategy of working through the trade unions formed the basis for the CPGB’s post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism. As John Callaghan has noted, almost all the elements of the CPGB’s plan to gain influence inside the Labour Party through the trade unions came together in the period between 1973 and 1983 (between the defeat of the Heath Government and Labour’s ‘radical’ 1983 manifesto),[1] but as we now know, there were little tangible gains from this strategy. The victory of the trade unions over Edward Heath only resulted in a crisis-ridden Labour Government beholden to the International Monetary Fund and Labour were roundly defeated in the 1983 election by Margaret Thatcher, after the Party’s leftwards shift caused a section of the right to break away to form the Social Democratic Party.

The loss of the 1983 election is routinely blamed upon the far left entrists in the Labour Party who pushed the party to the left, resulting in a manifesto that alienated the political centre. Roy Hattersley is attributed as saying the Party’s ‘Trotskyists, one-subject campaigners, Marxists who had never read Marx, Maoists, pathological dissidents … played a major part in keeping the Conservatives in power for almost twenty years.’[2] Although the actual reasons for Labour’s disastrous showing at this election are far more complex, the shadow of 1983 has loomed large over the party since Corbyn’s leadership victory.[3] Since becoming Labour leader, many have predicted that Corbyn will repeat the mistakes of Labour under Michael Foot – giving too much leeway to the far left and thus encouraging a split with the centre-right. The far left is portrayed by many commentators as a nebulous force set to derail Labour’s ability to present a credible opposition to the Conservatives and one of the main reasons that Labour will lose the 2020 general election (if not called sooner). While the spectre of various Trotskyists and Communists inside the Labour Party has been raised, it also vastly overestimates the influence that the far left has within the Labour Party nowadays.

In his recent book on the Corbyn ‘revolution’, Richard Seymour has suggested that the Labour Party ‘may simply be untenable in its current form’.[4] The gap between the electoral desires of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the grassroots call for reforms by a large section of the Party’s membership, not to mention to shifting voting base for the Labour Party, seems unsurmountable – and a resolution to suit all involved is unrealistic. Journalist and economist Paul Mason has recently suggested that the Labour Party should become a social movement, rather than simply an electoral political party. However the post-war history of the British far left highlights the difficulties in creating a social movement around an organised political party, rather than a single issue organisation. As Phil Burton-Cartledge showed in our last volume, Against the Grain, the success of the far left has come when it has spearheaded a broad-based social movement,[5] such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War movement, rather than when it has tried to consolidate and centralise its membership into a particular party. The history of the far left in Britain has shown that when different parties have attempted to transform momentum from a broad social movement into concrete party membership, this has not been easily translated. An understanding of the history of how the far left has operated and functioned in Britain since the 1950s is important to understand the limits of a radical agenda within a reformist framework (essentially where the Labour Party finds itself in 2016). It is hoped that our forthcoming book, as well as the previous volume, will help provide readers with this understanding.

 

[1] John Callaghan, ‘The Plan to Capture the British Labour Party and its Paradoxical Results, 1947-91’, Journal of Contemporary History, 40/4 (2005) p. 707.

[2] Cited in, Mark Steel, Reasons to be Cheerful: From Punk to New Labour (London: Scribner, 2001) p. 116.

[3] For example, see: Peter Dorey & Andrew Denham, ‘“The Longest Suicide Vote in History”: The Labour Party Leadership Election of 2015’, British Politics (2016) doi:10.1057/s41293-016-0001-0

[4] Richard Seymour, Corbyn: the Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (London: Verso, 2016) p. 12.

[5] Phil Burton-Cartledge, ‘Marching Separately, Seldom Together: The Political History of Two Principal Trends in British Trotskyism, 1945-2009’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) pp. 80-97.

What was Straight Left? An introduction by Lawrence Parker

Last week it was announced that Guardian journalist Seamus Milne was to become Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s new Director of Communications. A number of media reports remarked that Milne was once attached to the Communist Party factional journal Straight Left. However few, particularly in the mainstream media, know much about the Straight Left faction or its role in the final years of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I asked Lawrence Parker, an expert on the hardline oppositional and anti-revisionist groups that emerged from the CPGB, to write a little introduction to those unfamiliar with the history of the Straight Left faction.

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Origins

Straight Left’s origins lie in the left pro-Soviet oppositions that emerged in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1960s. In this period, a definite ‘party within a party’ emerged, with figures such as Sid French, district secretary of Surrey CPGB, becoming key leaders. The general critique that emerged from this faction was a concern over the CPGB leadership distancing itself from the Soviet Union (such as around the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) and other ‘socialist’ countries; a preference for a more ‘workerist’ identity (for example, the faction would have been happy with the CPGB’s paper remaining as the Daily Worker in 1966) and a concentration on workplaces/trade unions; and a sense that the party was squandering its resources in futile election contests and alienating the left of the Labour Party, with whom it was meant to be developing a close relationship on the British road to socialism (BRS), the CPGB programme. However, a significant part of the faction felt that the BRS was ‘reformist’ and ‘revisionist’ in all its guises from 1951, counter-posing a revolutionary path to the parliamentary road to socialism envisaged in the CPGB’s existing programme. This stance was clouded in ambiguity in many sections of the CPGB’s left, with the default position usually being expressed in a preference for the 1951 version of the BRS overseen by Stalin, as opposed to later versions modified by a ‘revisionist’ CPGB leadership.[i] This opposition suffered a major split in the run-up to the CPGB’s 1977 congress, with Sid French taking away 700 or so supporters to form the New Communist Party (after French realised that the CPGB’s leadership was intent on a reorganisation of his Surrey district, which would have deprived him of his organisational bridgehead). The rump left opposition in the CPGB coalesced around Fergus Nicholson (other key figures were John Foster, Brian Filling, Nick Wright, Susan Michie, Pat Turnbull and Andrew Murray) who had been the CPGB’s student organiser until 1974. The Straight Left newspaper was launched in 1979, with a theoretical magazine, Communist, also appearing. Membership figures are impossible to guess. However, judging from the Communist, the faction did have a wide national infrastructure beyond London through the 1980s and was certainly on a par with, if not in some places more deeper rooted than, the other oppositional stream around the Morning Star (see below).

Factions and fictions

The Straight Left group provoked a lot of enmity from its factional rivals in the CPGB. Thus, Mike Hicks, who was involved in the Communist Campaign Group (CCG), set up after the rebellion of Morning Star supporters against the CPGB leadership in the mid-1980s, and later the first general secretary of the 1988 Communist Party of Britain split (both criticised and opposed by the Straight Left faction), said in the late 1990s: “Straight Left was neither straight nor left.”[ii] Similarly, a CCG document complained: “The individuals grouped around Straight Left have their own newspaper, their own organisation, and their own objectives.”[iii] I have been told anecdotally by CPGB activists of the time that Straight Left was thought to have three circles: an inner ‘Leninist’ core; a broader circle of sympathisers in the CPGB; and the ‘softer’ Labourite and trade unionists grouped around the Straight Left newspaper (non-CPGB trade unionists such as Alan Sapper and Labour MPs such as Joan Maynard were on its advisory board). Certainly, the majority of the content of the newspaper was hewn from the same, dry ‘labour movement’ template used by the Morning Star, with little indication that it was the work of communists, apart from its commentary on the Soviet Union and other international matters. (The Communist journal, obviously aimed at CPGB sympathisers, was much more orthodox and harder Marxist-Leninist in tone, with a lot of very interesting commentary on inner-party CPGB matters.) So, Straight Left was a faction and did indulge in political camouflage but in this it was merely of its time. For example, the CCG’s disavowal of Straight Left’s factionalism was merely an attempt to throw people off the scent from the CCG’s own factionalism (the CCG unconvincingly complained it wasn’t a faction at all; just a group that wanted to follow the CPGB’s rules — which fooled nobody). The CPGB was riddled with factions in the 1980s (and throughout the post-war period), not least those grouped around Marxism Today and the party machine. Similarly, on Straight Left’s broad left camouflage in its newspaper and other forums, this was the modus operandi of nearly the whole far left, from the Morning Star to various Trotskyist groups i.e. communists clothing their politics in everything from trade unionism to feminism and concealing their true aims in the pursuit of mass influence. Again, in hindsight, Straight Left doesn’t strike one as very exceptional in this regard. In retrospect, the enmity aimed at it on these counts stands revealed as the product of mere factional rivalry.

However, another area of criticism aimed at Straight Left may have more mileage in terms of a lasting judgement. The group was deemed by its CPGB factional rivals (both in the CCG and the small group around The Leninist) to have a ‘heads down’ approach to CPGB work. In the words of the CCG such an approach “counsels caution and compliance with the authority of the [CPGB’s] Executive Committee. It says that if there is disagreement and dissatisfaction with the Eurocommunists [the faction then dominating the party’s leadership], then opposition must be expressed and conducted via the normal party channels. That is to say, we must try at successive congresses to defeat and remove the Eurocommunists.”[iv] This led to notorious moves such as Straight Leftists walking out with the CPGB leader Gordon McLennan when he closed down a London District Congress in November 1984 that threatened to become a point of opposition to the party leadership. Mike Hicks, in the chair of this meeting, later contemptuously observed that Straight Left “ended up selling Marxism Today [CPGB theoretical journal much despised by the party’s left in the 1980s for its Eurocommunist proclivities] instead of the Morning Star because the executive told them to”.[v] However, what this Straight Left strategy of avoiding open conflict eventually led to, in the context of a CPGB that was being set on a liquidationist course, was it being left somewhat high and dry. Straight Left had built a considerable base in London by the end of the 1980s “by showing a willingness to take on responsibilities at a time when few candidates were to be found”.[vi] This was to be a very hollow victory indeed given that the CPGB was soon to pass into oblivion and the succession of congresses to win was coming to an end.

Labour pains

In terms of the Labour Party, Straight Left took the BRS injunction of developing an alliance with Labour to effect radical changes to its logical conclusion by arguing that the CPGB should affiliate to the Labour Party and, more controversially for both the left and right of the CPGB, that the party should end its independent electoral work. Thus a typical article in Communist argued: “… it is difficult to see there being much movement against the exclusion of communist trades unionists from the Labour Party until our electoral strategy is based on non-sectarian principles and imbued with a thoroughly consistent and positive attitude to the Labour Party.”[vii] Thus Straight Left picked up clearly on the attitude of the pro-Soviet CPGB opposition of the 1960s, which consistently drew attention to the political impact of declining electoral votes on the avowed Labour-Communist strategy of the party. However, this opened up Straight Left to jibes of ‘liquidationism’ from both left and right in the CPGB[viii] and, in retrospect, isolated the group further.

Men of steel
The Straight Left group, again showing its origins in the CPGB’s pro-Soviet left of the 1960s, took an extremely uncritical view of the Soviet Union and other ‘socialist’ nations, and viewed the actions of the CPGB as a ‘national’ sin against the ‘internationalist’ probity of the Soviet Union’s camp. Straight Left publications were filled with reprints from Soviet agencies such as Novosti and other press agencies from the Eastern Bloc. Thus, an article in Communist argued:

Democracy for the working class has at all times been infinitely greater in the Soviet Union than in Britain. Political power in the Soviet Union is exercised for the working class and not against it. Concretely the Soviet citizen has human rights we are denied. He works for himself, collectively; and he is not unemployed.

Neither did this stance seemingly allow criticism of even the most crisis-stricken and sickly military dictatorships of countries such as Poland in the early 1980s. Straight Leftist Charlie Woods, complaining bitterly of CPGB criticisms of the Polish regime in 1983, said: “After all, how would our [CPGB] leadership take it if the over two-million-strong Polish United Workers Party took time off from trying to solve the problems of socialism to remonstrate with our 16,000-member party’s failure to achieve it at all.”[ix] The implication of this little homily being, of course, that those British communists really shouldn’t venture to criticise their Polish brethren at all. Fergus Nicholson used the pseudonym ‘Harry Steel’ when writing in Straight Left (Harry after Harry Pollitt, the CPGB’s most-revered general secretary; and Steel after Joseph Stalin the so-called ‘man of steel’). The attitude that the faction took to the Soviet Union shows that this was no idle affectation.

The Straight Left journal existed until the early 1990s, but many of its followers ended up joining the Communist Party of Britain, which was set up from the CCG in 1988. Unlike The Leninist faction, which became the new CPGB in the late 1990s, the Straight Left faction faded into obscurity after the breakup of the original Communist Party of Great Britain.

Lawrence Parker is the author of the book, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991. He has also contributed a chapter on anti-revisionism inside the CPGB in the 1950s and 1960s for our edited collection, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956.

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[i] It was difficult for a generally Stalin-supporting left in the CPGB to discard the legacy of the 1951 version of the BRS, particularly after John Gollan had helpfully pointed out that Stalin oversaw its incarnation. See John Gollan ‘Which road?’ Marxism Today July 1964. For a clear example of this ambiguity being shown to the BRS, see the contribution of Fergus Nicholson to the CPGB’s 1977 pre-congress debate in Comment 1 October 1977.

[ii] Francis Beckett Enemy within: the rise and fall of the British Communist Party London, 1998 p234. The accession of a group of ex-Straight Leftists (including Andrew Murray and Nick Wright, who had split from Straight Left to form Communist Liaison in the early 1990s) into the ranks of the Communist Party of Britain, contributed to a bitter faction fight in the organisation, in which Hicks was eventually deposed as general secretary and a strike by Morning Star staff.

[iii] Communist Campaign Group The crisis in the Communist Party and the way forward (no date but circa 1985)

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Beckett op cit

[vi] Willie Thompson The good old cause: British communism 1920-1991 London, 1992 p205

[vii] ‘40th congress of the Communist Party’ Communist September 1987

[viii] For the right wing of the CPGB, see Dave Cook in the pre-congress discussion of 1981; and for the left, Alan Stevens in the same context. Both in Comment 17 October 1981.

[ix] Charlie Woods The crisis in our Communist Party: cause, effect and cure 1983. Woods was a miner and party veteran from County Durham who was expelled for writing this pamphlet although he was very much viewed as a ‘fall guy’, with Fergus Nicholson or Brian Topping thought of as the more likely authors.