UK Labour Party

New article on Corbyn and the historical context of the 2017 Labour manifesto

Very excited to announce that British Politics has published an article by myself and Rob Manwaring on Jeremy Corbyn and the 2017 Labour Party manifesto in historical context. You can access a free version of the article here.

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New book: ‘Communists and Labour: The National Left-Wing Movement 1925-1929’ by Lawrence Parker (with extract)

Lawrence Parker, author of The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991, has published a new book, Communists and Labour: The National Left-Wing Movement 1925-1929.

The National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM), set up by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1925–26 to pull the Labour Party rank and file towards Communist politics, was one in which Marxists worked in a largely open fashion to promote specific programmatic principles.

This publication sheds new light on how the early CPGB approached its work inside the Labour Party and points to a more variegated picture of the CPGB in the mid-to-late 1920s as still capable of producing rational and principled responses to the class struggle — albeit, in the case of the NLWM, partially flawed and unsuccessful ones.

The NLWM had another goal forced upon it of protecting Communists and their sympathisers from a Labour leadership intent on expelling and disaffiliating such elements in a pursuit of respectability. This monograph seeks to qualitatively measure the impact of that disaffiliation process on the CPGB, the NLWM and Labour sympathisers.

You can order the book here. Below is an extract from the book’s introduction.

vaughan and co 1928

Members of the disaffiliated Bethnal Green Trades Council and Labour Party in 1928. Joe Vaughan, Britain’s first CPGB mayor, is front-centre

The National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM), an oppositional force inside the Labour Party in the mid-to-late 1920s, designed to pull rank-and-file Labour members towards the politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), has the status of a relative historical curio. In the ever-expanding literature on the CPGB, the NLWM has received only cursory treatment.

This ‘novelty-item’ status is probably a reflection of the ‘grander’ historical events surrounding the NLWM in the trajectory of the 1920s CPGB. If people know anything about the CPGB in this era, they know of Lenin’s ‘hanged-man’ advice on affiliation to the Labour Party;the party’s role in the General Strike of 1926; and its adoption of disastrous sectarian tactics in the late 1920s.Compared to this, the NLWM is a relative blind spot.

The CPGB itself evinced very little understanding of the NLWM up to its dissolution in 1991. In one historian’s words, the Comintern’s seventh congress of 1935, which saw the popular front take centre stage in world Communist politics, came to be seen by CPGB members as a “foundation congress”.[1] This creates instant problems for the reception of formations such as the NLWM, which was constructed around the pursuit of a process of differentiation with a more ideologically diffuse Labour left, whereas later CPGB approaches to this constituency were hedged around with more modest ideas of adaptation and accommodation — the popular front being the exemplar of such tactics.

Thus, in its latter decades, while the CPGB was still concerned to promote unity with the left of the Labour Party, a nebulous courtship was conducted from a distance, and Communists, in general, did not organise within Labour (this had largely come to an end in 1940). As the CPGB became ever more concerned with notions of respectability (which, in this case, meant respecting the bourgeois proprietorial rights that the Labour Party bureaucracy expected to wield over its patch) and as its chances of becoming a mass organisation that could become an attractive partner to the Labour Party receded, such ‘unity’ became steadily more chimerical. Even though its programme, The British Road to Socialism (first published in 1951), in many ways represented the Communists writing the Labour left’s programme for it, the CPGB was generally forced to rely on more indirect means of influencing Labour, such as the trade unions.

This conservative approach had definite implications for the manner in which the CPGB handled the radicalism of past movements such as the NLWM. When, for example, the CPGB chose to emote on Communist-Labour relations in 1977-78,[2] there was no way, of course, that the historical experience of the NLWM could be central to that debate, given that it was set up to differentiate Communist politics inside a more generic Labour left and act as a bridge to the CPGB (although Monty Johnstone did at least outline a rudimentary awareness of the NLWM in 1978).[3] Official histories of the CPGB offer a bland outline of the NLWM. For example, Noreen Branson, having spoken to one of the NLWM’s secretaries, Ralph Bond,[4] does offer up some useful details but her narrative doesn’t reveal any of the key contradictions of the movement — in a similar fashion to Stalinist economists discussing the quantities of pig iron produced in the Soviet Union.[5] In other words, we know some of the facts of the NLWM’s existence but we know very little of how and why it existed.

The Trotskyist movement has a much better record of trying to excavate the history of the NLWM, led by Brian Pearce, who originally published an important essay ‘The British Communist Party and the Labour left, 1925-1929’ in 1957 (under the pseudonym of Joseph Redman). This offered a sympathetic analysis of the NLWM and the CPGB’s work in establishing it.[6] Pearce was a pioneer in this field and is deserving of respect. However, I have been critical of some of his approach in this study and, in particular, of his preference for quantifying the NLWM’s impact through bare statistics over exploring the qualitative evidence, which, in its very consistency, offers up a far less optimistic picture of the movement’s prospects. Nevertheless, Pearce, in identifying the NLWM as a positive force emanating from the CPGB beyond 1925 (i.e. after Stalin’s bureaucratic faction began to talk hold of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), is an important figure in pointing up a more variegated picture of the CPGB in the mid-to-late 1920s.

Unfortunately, Pearce’s example has generally not been followed and when Britain’s two major Trotskyist organisations of the 1980s, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and the Militant Tendency, investigated the NLWM, the jaundiced picture that emerged had more to do with factional manoeuvring and soap-powder-type brand differentiation than with the real dynamics of the history involved. The Militant Tendency was an entrist group working inside the Labour Party and falsely denied that it had a separate organisation outside Labour. The SWP was Militant’s opponent, inventing spurious reasons as to why entry into the Labour Party was a thoroughly bad idea. This set the scene for their reception of the NLWM. Militant was obviously the more sympathetic but was publicly suspicious of the CPGB for maintaining a separate organisation outside the Labour Party (i.e. exactly what Militant itself did).[7] The SWP, on the other hand, in Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein’s desperate works of the period, felt duty bound to present the NLWM essentially as a ‘right-opportunist’ gambit and a capitulation to reformism, in order to do down Militant and thus any idea of entry work in the Labour Party.[8]

Academic works haven’t generally offered up anything better on the NLWM than the occasional, often trivial, aside,[9] the exception being Leslie Macfarlane’s 1966 work on the CPGB in the 1920s, which offers some useful detail and was a suggestive source of ideas for this work.[10]

However, there is another side to this partial disappearance of the NLWM from the history books. It was a badly organised and unsuccessful venture that lasted for barely three-and-a-half years. In fact, these years saw the removal of Communists from the Labour Party’s ranks and its political defeat at the hands of the Labour bureaucracy. So the question would be: why do we need a study of the NLWM?

The author doesn’t really have a pat answer to this question beyond his own cussedness and interest in obscure political formations. This work probably began with a set of different intentions and conceptions, roughly based on the thought that it would be a useful project since Jeremy Corbyn’s accession to the Labour Party leadership in September 2015 — the most left-wing leader in the party’s history — to understand the history of left-wing revolts in Labour. The author rapidly jettisoned these ideas, partly because he became suspicious of the utilitarian projections some of his friends put on the work.

The history of the NLWM has no specific bearing on today’s situation in the Labour Party. The NLWM was organised by a serious force to the Labour Party’s left: the CPGB, which was part of and exterior to the Labour Party in the first half of the 1920s. It was organised, in theory, on a precise political programme to offer a bridgehead for Left-Wing workers into the CPGB. Today, the Labour Party has a left-wing leader who is panicking the establishment (and is worth supporting for that reason alone) but there is no serious Marxist organisation to its left — merely a gaggle of incompetent sects. The idea that an organised Marxist conspiracy propelled Corbyn to power is a bizarre fantasy peddled by tabloid newspapers… and the Labour Party’s deputy leader Tom Watson. The movement that propelled Corbyn to power is ideologically incoherent and scarcely animated by socialist, let alone Marxist, ideas, instead being composed of people inspired by a loose amalgam of politically correct good causes and a weird cult of non-personality around Corbyn himself. So, ultimately, nothing has animated this work beyond the author’s own interest in the NLWM and filling a gap in the historical record.

However, while the author would be highly suspicious if his work were to become some kind of handbook for today’s militants inside the Labour Party, it does perhaps provide some more general — pessimistic — lessons as to the inherent problems of revolutionaries working inside reformist organisations. The CPGB of the 1920s largely worked in an open fashion inside the Labour Party and while it was able to animate a supportive section of Labour members inside the NLWM, it is doubtful this led to many long-term gains in the sense of making substantial numbers of Communists (or at least Communists willing to accept the CPGB as the ultimate organisational broker of their political identity). Later endeavours of the CPGB in the 1930s and subsequent entrist adventures in the Labour Party by smaller Trotskyist groups tried to offset the major drawback of open work (i.e. exposure to bureaucrats intent on expulsion and disaffiliation) by clothing themselves in the outward garb of social-democratic reformism and hiding their Marxist politics to a greater or lesser extent. It is doubtful if this later entrism achieved a balance sheet of anything more than the traditional leftist twin evils of opportunism and sectarianism.

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[1]K Morgan Against fascism and war: ruptures and continuities in British communist politics 1935-41 Manchester 1989 p33.

[2]See, for example, G McLennan ‘Interview on the Communist Party and unity’ Marxism Today March 1977; D Priscott ‘Problems of Communist-Labour relationships’ Marxism Today October 1977; and M Prior ‘Communist-Labour relations’ Marxism Today February 1978.

[3]M Johnstone ‘Early Communist strategy for Britain: an assessment’ Marxism Today September 1978. ‘Official’ histories of the CPGB also offer a bland outline of the NLWM — see, for example, N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927-41 London 1985.

[4]Ralph Bond (1904–89) became better known as a documentary filmmaker and co-founded the London Workers’ Film Society in 1929. He remained with the CPGB until his death.

[5]N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927–41 London 1985 pp 4–11.

[6]I have used this version: B Pearce ‘The Communist Party and the Labour left, 1925-1929’ in B Pearce and M Woodhouse A history of communism in Britain London 1995 pp 184-210.

[7]T Aitman ‘Labour’s purge of the 1920s’ Militant 18 April 1986. Aitman said: “Militant is a newspaper whose supporters represent a trendof opinion in the [Labour Party] — unlike the Communist Party of the [1920s,] which was a separate and distinct organisation.”

[8]  See T Cliff and D Gluckstein Marxism & trade union struggle: the general strike of 1926 London 1986; and T Cliff and D Gluckstein The Labour Party: a Marxist history London 1988. See chapter 2 for more on this.

[9]For an example of such trivia, John Callaghan argues: “[The NLWM] was designed to seduce the Labour left into joint work with the communists and succeeded, up to the General Strike, in fostering some sort of united front…”[9]— J Callaghan Rajani Palme Dutt: a study in British Stalinism London 1993 p 117.

As this study will argue, if this was a seduction then it was a remarkably unsuccessful given that the courtship had in fact foundered long before the General Strike.

[10]LJ Macfarlane The British Communist Party: its origin and development until 1929 London 1966.

‘Who Governs Britain?’: The last time the Tories called a snap election…

heath

In between the ‘hey-day’ of 1968-69 and the upsurge in trade union militancy and political radicalism of 1971-74, the 1970s began for the British left as a period of a political plateau, only shaken up by the unexpected election of the Conservatives under Edward Heath. Although Harold Wilson had faced several political problems in the dying days of the 1960s, such as increased trade union militancy, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, a burgeoning anti-war movement against Vietnam and some economic woes, it was still expected that Labour would win the 1970 General Election, probably with a reduced majority of seats. However, once the Conservatives were elected to power, Heath introduced a piece of legislation that would transform the labour movement for the first half of the decade. The Industrial Relations Act 1971 created a groundswell of resistance to its implementation and in 1972, the trade union movement, with the lead taken by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), undertook a strategy of continual strike action, which led to paralysed industries.

Britain was thrown further into disarray over the next few years, beginning in late 1973 when the Oil Crisis plunged the Western world into economic shock and the re-election of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in 1974. The Oil Crisis emanating from the Middle East in October 1973 caused massive energy problems for the Western world, particularly in Europe and North America who were facing the start of winter, which impacted upon industry, causing a rise in inflation and living costs. The Heath Government, concerned about conserving energy now that the price of oil had risen exponentially, instigated a three day business week, but was also concerned about an on-going pay dispute with the NUM, which looked threatened access to coal stocks. To break this deadlock, Heath called a snap election in February 1974 with the campaign promise to be tough on trade unions who held the nation to ‘ransom’, with the NUM calling a strike a few days later. The outcome of the February election was a hung parliament with no clear majority to either Labour or the Conservatives and thus another election was held in October 1974, which Labour won with a majority of three. After the February election, Labour ruled momentarily as a minority government and the NUM called off its strike, but Wilson, not wanting a return to the industrial action he faced in the late 1960s and fearing that any strike activity would hinder Britain’s economic recovery, negotiated a ‘Social Contract’ with the Trades Union Congress that agreed to a voluntary wage freeze and a cessation of strike activity for the short-term future. Many felt that the victories of the early 1970s had not produced their desired effects and that end result of years of militant industrial struggle was a return to the same old Labour Government that had preceded Heath and had now restrained the unions with the Social Contract.

But the crisis that Britain faced in the mid-1970s was not remedied by reinstallation of a Labour government. Despite Labour’s best efforts, unemployment and inflation still rose and productivity declined. The economic crisis compounded the feelings that a political crisis was impending. Wilson suspected that a right-wing conspiracy, with sections of the military and intelligence services involved, was out to unseat him from being Prime Minister. The National Front, as well as the Monday Club, started to agitate for stricter immigration controls and the repatriation of non-white Britons, as well as the elimination of trade unions and the monitoring of those considered ‘communists’ or ‘socialists’. In 1976, the International Monetary Fund agreed to loans to assist the Labour Government, but only on the condition of strict public spending cuts, which exacerbated the problem further and turned many sections of British society away from Labour. This, alongside the view that the Social Contract agreed between the TUC and Labour was on the verge of collapse, placed an enormous burden upon Wilson, who resigned due to ill health in March 1976, with James Callaghan becoming Prime Minister. Increasingly it looked to many observers that Britain was experiencing a crisis of the post-war social democratic consensus and that the bipartisan framework constructed by both major parties in the early 1950s was now falling apart. As Stuart Hall and others from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies wrote, the crisis of the mid-1970s was ‘a crisis in political legitimacy, in social authority, in hegemony, and in the forms of class struggle.’

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After Grunwick: Trade unions and anti-racism in the 1980s

This is the latest post looking at the history of the turbulent relationship between the British labour movement and black and Asian workers in the post-war era, following on from posts on the Imperial Typewriters strike in mid-1974 and the Grunwick strike between 1976 and 1978. While Grunwick is seen as a turning point, there were still significant problems for black and Asian workers in the labour movement. These were exacerbated by the attacks on the trade unions (and the black and Asian communities) by the Thatcher government in the early 1980s. This post is based on extracts from my forthcoming book with Brill/Haymarket, British Communism and the Politics of Race.

Although the Grunwick strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since as compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recognised the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[1]

However the strike did not signal an end to the problematic relationship between the trade unions and black and Asian workers, particularly as the trade unions, as well as Britain’s black and Asian communities, came under attack in the early 1980s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many black and Asian workers remained dissatisfied with the trade unions, particularly for their limited reaction to the problem of racism faced by these workers. In 1977, the PEP (Political and Economic Planning) report, Racial Disadvantage in Britain, outlined the problems that black workers faced in their relationship with the trade union movement, noting that while the 1970s had seen developments in most of the trade unions adopting anti-racist and equal opportunities policies, there was ‘a contrast between this formal policy and its practical results’.[2] In interviews with eight of the largest unions in Britain, the report found ‘little evidence that any definite action had been taken’ by the trade union leadership to combat incidents of racial discrimination inside the unions.[3] The report revealed that the trade union leaders were likely to ignore cased of racial discrimination unless they reached the highest echelons of the unions’ complaint structures and as ‘very few complaints filtered up to head-office level,… leaders tended to interpret this as meaning that there was very little trouble of this kind.’[4] The trade unions, along with the Labour Party, were spurred into anti-racist action by the mid-to-late 1970s, as seen with the large scale mobilisation of trade union support for the Grunwick strike and the labour movement backing of the Anti-Nazi League. However as Phizacklea and Miles argued in 1987, the anti-racist campaigning by the trade unions (primarily the TUC) and the Labour Party ‘seemed to die away with the collapse of the National Front vote in the general election of 1979’.[5]

In August 1976, the TUC formed its Race Relations Advisory Committee and in 1981 created a Black Workers Charter, but several studies conducted in the 1980s revealed that these initiatives had a limited impact upon the efforts of the trade unions to combat racism in the workplace and within their own organisations. Phizacklea and Miles cited a 1981 investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the AUEW that it was the policy of the union to condemn racial discrimination, ‘no specific instructions about how such a policy should be implemented had been provided for either officials or members’ and this principled opposition to racism was ‘contradicted by both the open expression of racism’ by some union members and ‘the refusal of the officials to take any action to combat that racism’.[6] Gloria Lee stated that when interviewed, black members ‘saw themselves as grossly under-represented within their unions’ and ‘felt that as black members, they [were] more poorly served buy their union than white members’.[7] John Wrench cited in his 1986 paper that certain acts of explicit racism were still occurring in the trade union movement in the early 1980s, but there was also ‘the more passive collusion of union officers in practices which were discriminatory in their outcomes, and a reluctance to change these practices’, such as the use of word-of-mouth to hire people, which worked greatly against non-white applicants.[8]

The traditional position of the trade unions was to have no specific policies to assist black workers integrate into the labour movement, arguing for ‘equal treatment’ for both black and white union members.[9] Despite the actions taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the aforementioned initiatives by the TUC, the ‘equal treatment’ argument still remained with the trade unions. In 1977, the PEP report stated that some union officials justified their poor record on combating racism ‘by saying they make no distinction between black and white and that this means that no special action can be taken’.[10] Phizacklea and Miles claimed that this was still the case in the 1980s and declared ‘[r]acism can masquerade in the guise of colour-blindness, when there is clear evidence of cases containing discrimination and allegations of lack of support for Asian and Caribbean members from their unions.’[11]

As part of the TUC’s efforts to combat racism, special education classes were created to inform trade unionists about the impact of racism upon black workers and how to tackle this, but critics asserted that as these classes were voluntary to attend, it had not reached the right audience and was not well supported by the unions.[12] Wrench argued that ‘those…who would benefit most from attending such courses tend to stay away as they feel that such provisions are a waste of time and money’.[13] A 1984 report by the Greater London Council’s Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group found that the GMWU, ACTT and NUT all held equal opportunities and ‘racism awareness’ training courses, but only the AUEW-TASS ran any ‘positive action’ programmes, which supported ‘appointing officials with ethnic background, or females, to the union’.[14]

John Wrench wrote in 1986 about this GLC report, stating:

The findings of the GLC survey confirm the suspicions of many activists that despite the history of disputes and struggles, the research, the educational material, and the prosecutions, there remains a body of trade union officers who simply do ot understand – or are wunwilling to acknowledge – what racism and racial equality are, what their effects are, how they operate, and what sorts of measures are needed to oppose them.[15]

However most of these reports from the 1980s pointed to areas where the trade unions were progressing on issues of ‘race’. Phizacklea and Miles wrote that ‘we have witnessed some concern amongst some unions to increase the participation and representation of Asian and Caribbean workers and restatement of a commitment amongst the same union to tackle racism within their own ranks and the wider society.’[16] John Wrench also noted that in the era of austerity and the Thatcherite onslaught against the trade union movement, ‘there has been an awareness of common cause and common interest’ between black and white workers and that this had been ‘part of one positive development of recent years – the increasing organisation of black workers and their success in making their influence felt within the labour movement.’[17]

This eventually led to the establishment of black sections or caucuses within several trade unions, as well as the Labour Party, which were seen as highly controversial at the time. Despite opposition from Labour Opposition leader Neil Kinnock, the black sections motion was passed by the 1983 Labour Party conference and the Party, alongside several public service unions, established black caucuses or sections as part of their internal structures. In a 1985 roundtable organised by Marxism Today, Stuart Hall and the Indian Workers Association (Southall) General Secretary Vishnu Sharma (also a leading CPGB member) argued that black caucuses and sections were beneficial for the labour movement, while Race & Class editor, A. Sivanandan, described them as a ‘distraction from the struggle that the black community has to face today’.[18] Hall countered this by saying:

If you say that the real problem is maintaining the momentum of the black struggle then I can see that the black sections are a distraction. But if you are concerned, an I am concerned, about the question of the white working class, you have to recognise that the Labour Party is a majority working class party. It has hegemonised the working class since the beginning of the twentieth century, whether we like it or not… So the black struggle must have some idea about how to get into that organisationally, how to transform that organisation…[19]

He argued that bringing the black struggle to the Labour Party was a ‘double struggle which is both with and against’ and required taking the fight to the Labour Party’s constituent elements, as well as the TUC –‘blowing it apart from the inside’.[20] To transform the ideas and actions of the labour movement, Hall proposed, one had to ‘mak[e] the internal structured organisation of the labour movement aware of the impact and history of racism.’[21]

Despite their initial controversy, the general political consensus is that the black caucuses within the trade unions and the black sections inside the Labour Party proved useful for promoting an awareness of issues of racial discrimination and equal opportunity within the labour movement, remaining until today. At a time when Thatcherism seemed at its hegemonic peak and the labour movement was at one of its lowest ebbs, the formation of the black caucuses/sections in the face of fierce resistance was a victory that buoyed those in the anti-racist struggle.

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[1] McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2014, ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, p. 600.

[2] Smith, David J. 1977, Racial Disadvantage in Britain: The PEP Report, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, p. 193.

[3] Ibid., p. 202.

[4] Ibid., p. 204.

[5] Phizacklea, Annie and Robert Miles 1987, ‘The British Trade Union Movement and Racism’, in The Manufatcure of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveride, Milton Keynes: Open University, p. 119.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lee, Gloria 1987, ‘Black Members and Their Unions’, in The Manufacture of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveridge, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, p. 151.

[8] Wrench, John Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, Policy Papers in Ethnic Relations no. 5, 1986, pp. 11-2.

[9] Wrench, John and Satnam Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised: “Race”, Poor Work and Trade Unions’, in The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, edited by Peter Ackers, Chris Smith and Paul Smith, London: Routledge, p. 245.

[10] Smith 1977, p. 193.

[11] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 123.

[12] Lee 1987, p. 149.

[13] Wrench 1986, p. 13.

[14] GLC Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group, Racism Within Trade Unions, 1984, London: GLC, p. 16.

[15] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 22.

[16] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 121.

[17] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 24.

[18] ‘Black Sections: Radical Demand or… Distraction?’, Marxism Today, September 1985, p. 33.

[19] ‘Black Sections’, p. 34.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

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.

‘Fortress Britain’ and the end of the Cold War

Timothy Garton Ash wrote in The Guardian this week that the walls and barriers that had fallen in 1989 were being rebuilt in 2015. A cartoon in the pages of Marxism Today published in December 1989 seems to have made the same argument – that while the West celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the same time, they were seeking to build metaphorical walls of their own to keep out ‘undesirable’ migrants.

Wall 1989

In 1982, Thatcher described the Berlin Wall as ‘a monument to oppression and cruelty, but also to futility’. The British border control system, which was significantly strengthened during her Prime Ministership, could be described in the same terms.

Since Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, the free movement of people within the borders of the EEC (and then the European Union) meant that Britain experienced significantly more numbers of migrants from Europe than from the Commonwealth and other nations, whose numbers were cut dramatically by the introduction of the Immigration Act 1971. Although opposition to Britain joining the European Community has been widespread, but diffuse, since the late 1960s, opposition to migration from within Europe was only a minor feature in the discourse on immigration in Britain until the 1990s.

The most reasonable explanation for this is because there was free movement within the EEC’s borders, labour migration was not permanent and numbers seemed to rise and fall in line with changes in the economic landscape. But there is also the possibility that objections to European migration were muted because most migrants within the EEC were “white”. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1991 and the enlargement of the European Union in the early 2000s have shifted the discourse on European migration in Britain.

A substantial part of the discourse has been a concern over migrants from Eastern Europe to Britain, replicating fears expressed over previous waves of migrants to Britain – that Eastern Europeans, particularly Polish migrants, have been taking jobs away from British people and that others, particularly Romanians, Bulgarians and Albanians, have been involved in crime in Britain, from petty offences to trans-national organised crime. These objections to migration from Eastern Europe have been usually, but not always, part of a wider objection to the European Union and a push for Britain to leave the EU.

Furthermore in 2015, the nations that exist on the edges of the EU, such as Greece, Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania have been seen as having porous borders that have allowed asylum seekers and ‘illegal immigrants’ from the Middle East and South Asia into Europe. Under the Conservatives (and driven to the right by UKIP), anti-European and anti-immigrant sentiment had reached such a height that Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU and Cameron has pushed for a renegotiation of the nation’s obligations to Europe. This is possibly the biggest assertion of British self-interest within the EU since Margaret Thatcher refused to join the Schengen Area in the late 1980s.

In 1985, the Schengen Agreement was first signed by member countries of the EEC to discard the operation of border control between these countries, which has expanded within the EU to twenty-five countries. Thatcher refused to join and during an infamous speech in Bruges in 1988, stated:

Of course, we want to make it easier for goods to pass through frontiers. Of course, we must make it easier for people to travel through the Community. But it is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants.

By this time, ‘Fortress Britain’ had already excluded most Commonwealth immigrants and now it resisted relaxing its controls with regards to people from within Europe.

As travel restrictions between East and West Germany were abolished in November 1989, Thatcher expressed that she hoped that ‘this is only a prelude to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.’ As the rest of the Soviet Bloc collapsed, while many proposed greater integration of the former Eastern ‘people’s democracies’ into the European Union, Thatcher and other Eurosceptic Tories worried about expansion of the EU eastwards. However by the time that EU expansion was actually tabled, Labour was in power, who did not oppose this, much to the chargrin of many.

While the walls are going back up across mainland Europe now, Britain’s (metaphorical) walls have been erected since the dying days of the Cold War.

 

Public engagement ftw!

Exeter

Two guest posts by yours truly have been published in the last two days. The first is on my research into the UK perspective on the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975 and has been published by The Conversation. The second is on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and their view of Australia as a ‘proto-fascist’ settler colony. This post has been published by the wonderful Imperial and Global Forum run by the University of Exeter.

I did a radio interview about the Whitlam controversy with Dom Knight on ABC Radio Sydney last night. I think the episode is available for reply for the next week.