The Labour Party has always had left wings, more or less organised, more or less diffuse. The thing is, up to now, they have always been defeated. A look at the history tells us what we need from a new left.
In a way the Labour Party’s founding (as the Labour Representation Committee, in 1900) was a high point for the Labour left. The left wing was embodied in affiliated sub-parties, able to operate regular party structures of their own, without witch-hunts or bans.
Until 1918 the Labour Party had no individual members: it was a federation of trade unions (only a minority of unions at first, then more and more) and socialist sub-parties, the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation, and the Fabian Society. Its local organisation in each area was usually either the Trades Council or the local ILP.
The ILP, however, almost always adapted to the main union leaders who, ideologically, were no more than Liberals with a special interest in trade-union issues. It became a machine for decorating minimalist reform policies with windy socialist phrases. The finale came in 1931, when the ILP leaders Ramsey Macdonald and Philip Snowden, then Labour Prime Minister and Chancellor, split from Labour in order to make welfare cuts and front a Tory-dominated “National Government”.
The SDF was made of stronger stuff. But within a year of the Labour Party’s founding it disaffiliated, in disgust at Labour’s refusal to commit to socialist aims. The SDF remained active in local Labour Party organisations (i.e. Trades Councils); SDFers, as trade-union delegates, were vocal at Labour Party conference; and SDFers stood for and won seats as Labour parliamentary candidates.
SDF Labour MPs such as Will Thorne, however, often became indistinguishable from the mainstream. The SDF had no real concept of intervening in the Labour Party. Its concept was rather that the SDF, as such, would advocate for socialism, and meanwhile individual SDFers would do their individual work in trade unions and the Labour Party.
After World War One the Labour Party got a flood of new working-class support and began to outstrip the Liberals. It set up an individual membership structure.
The dynamic force of the socialist left was now the Communist Party, formed in July 1920 by the British Socialist Party merging with other groups.
The BSP was a continuation of the SDF but had reaffiliated to the Labour Party in 1916. Now BSPers, and even more so other leaders of the new Communist Party, who came from groups outside Labour, thought revolution so near that there was no point bothering with Labour.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks eventually convinced them that the CP should apply to affiliate to the Labour Party. A similar policy in Australia won CP affiliation to the Australian Labor Party for a while, but in Britain the Labour leaders were alarmed and the CP leaders maladroit. Labour rejected affiliation, and has never since allowed sub-parties to affiliate.
Individual CP members remained active in local Labour Parties, or were even elected as Labour MPs. The Labour right came after them. Eventually, in 1925, it banned CPers from Labour membership. The CP fought back, with a National Left Wing Movement based on Constituency Labour Parties disaffiliated for not expelling CPers plus left-wing groups in other CLPs. The NLWM’s paper, the Sunday Worker, had a circulation of 100,000, substantially bigger than CP’s Workers’ Weekly.
Leon Trotsky outlined a perspective: “To think that the communists will grow over the decades step by step, acquiring at each new parliamentary election a few tens or hundreds of thousands of new votes, would be to have a fundamentally false concept of the future. Of course for a certain relatively prolonged period communism will develop comparatively slowly but [in the next big political crisis] the Communist Party will occupy the [leading] place in the Labour Party that is at present occupied by the Independents”.
Stalinism intervened. The CP dithered in the 1926 General Strike, and then in 1928-9 made a Stalin-inspired turn to dismissing the Labour Party en bloc as “social-fascist” and dissolving the NLWM.
Few NLWM members can have joined the CP, which by then was declining. Presumably the majority dispersed or returned to the ILP soft left of the Party.
The shock of Macdonald’s and Snowden’s betrayal in 1931 led the ILP rump not to intervene more dynamically but to disaffiliate and start dwindling. ILPers who disagreed with that move joined with other Labour leftists to create a group called the Socialist League, whose leaders included Stafford Cripps, G D H Cole, Aneurin Bevan, and Michael Foot.
Stalinism intervened again. Socialist League politics narrowed down to advocacy of a Popular Front “from as far left as the Communist Party to as far right as the democratic Tory”. This Labour left was in some ways to the right of the Labour mainstream!
The Socialist League dissolved, in response to a Labour decision to ban it, in 1937, and the weekly paper Tribune was launched. For 40 years Tribune was the axis of the Labour left.
From 1937 until the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, Tribune was pro-Stalinist, accepting the Moscow Trials. After 1945 it was hegemonised by the reforming Labour government, and by 1948-49 Labour Party headquarters paid for two pages of each issue.
Tribune supported NATO and the Korean war. It did nothing to combat the Labour leaders’ increasing conservatism and loss of purpose after the reform surge of 1945-8, or the drift which would lead to the Labour right, with Hugh Gaitskell, taking the Party leadership in 1955.
Before Gaitskell became leader, however, a revolt had welled up from the rank and file: the “Bevanite” movement after 1951. Tribune shifted to reflect it, and became much livelier. “Tribune Brains Trust” meetings round the country drew large audiences. But they did not organise compact, effective revolt.
Gradually the “Bevanite” movement petered out. In 1958 some more left-wing Bevanite MPs made a move. As one of them, Ian Mikardo, recounted, they “took over a small and moribund society called Victory for Socialism and set about building it into a nationwide organisation. It was a mistake, and after a year or two we cut out of it because many of the branches had been taken over by the Trotskyists, and we had no means of stopping them”.
After 1959 the Labour youth movement — allowed to develop after a long period of bureaucratic stifling — became lively and left-wing. By 1969 it had been suppressed, partly through bans and expulsions, partly through impatient radicals withdrawing.
The revival of the Labour left after the Tories took office in 1970 and made a first (defeated) attempt at what would be called “Thatcherism” was almost entirely “molecular”, without national organisation. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy was launched in 1973, and continues to this day, but mostly operates as a “think-tank” and coordinating centre for efforts to reform party structure, rather than as an across-the-board left.
In 1978 the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory was formed. It was led by Marxists, rank-and-file activists, where previous groupings other than the NLWM had been led by soft-left MPs. It was able to ally with CLPD and others to create a broad Rank and File Mobilising Committee in 1980-1 which won democratic reforms in the Labour Party.
It was too small to prevail, especially after a large chunk of it split away in 1980 to support Labour councillors who responded to Thatcher’s cuts by raising rates (local property taxes) rather than defiance. The Labour and trade union leaders organised a backlash after their Bishops Stortford meeting of January 1982.
Part of the Labour right broke away to form the SDP (now merged into the Lib Dems); the rest remained, but openly undermined Labour’s election campaign in 1983 by denouncing the (incoherent) leftish manifesto.
At the October 1983 Labour conference, the SCLV paper Socialist Organiser, previously popular, was cold-shouldered when it commented mildly that the new Labour leadership combo — Neil Kinnock of the soft left and Roy Hattersley of the soft right — was “Not Our Dream”. A swathe of the left was willing to settle for “moderation”, “consensus”, and yet more “moderation”, in the hope that would restrain the organised Labour right from sabotage.
As the right regained its grip, culminating in Tony Blair’s election as leader in 1994, there were still left-wing groups — the Socialist Campaign Group Network, Labour Party Socialists, Keep The Link, Defend Clause Four. They were all fighting rearguard actions.
The Corbyn movement shows that Labour still has a base broad and porous enough that groundswells emerge, even in unpromising times (like 1951, like the 1970s).
But the Labour right has always been a solid force embedded in the labour movement’s bureaucracy, and, through that or directly, in bourgeois society. It is even more like that today, when a corps of hundreds of advisers, researchers, spin-doctors and other careerists has formed around MPs’ offices and Labour-ish think-tanks.
The hard-right faction Progress has had millions from Lord David Sainsbury (£195,000 so far this year) and other plutocrats. The right have, when it comes down to it, the whole weight of established society behind them. They have no scruples about sabotaging the labour movement from within, or undermining it by open splits.
And, all too often, the Labour left has had only diffuse, slow-moving networks, and leaders more scared both of the right wing and of “the Trotskyists” than keen to mobilise the rank and file. A new left should change that.