UK Politics

Labour: Back to No Future?

BY Tim Marshall   /  25 September 2016

One of the world’s great left wing movements, the British Labour Party, has just re-elected Jeremy Corbyn from the extreme left as its leader. He won an increased majority. A clear majority of people eligible to vote in the party election say they believe he is the man to lead them to national victory.  I suspect the opposite – that he will lead them to electoral oblivion and possibly even cause the party to split with large sections moving to a new centrist party. I’ve written in the past about how for some hard left Labour members the important thing is to have a hard left party, not to be in power.

The last time the Labour Party was tearing itself apart was the early 1980s, shortly after the Conservative Party embarked on 18 years of government and shortly before some members left to form a new party which ultimately failed to gain traction in the country. It was, as would be any new centrist party, stymied by the UK’s first past the post electoral system. Labour’s problems then with an entryist movement called ‘Militant’ are similar to those now although the current situation is arguably more advanced given that the party leadership is now controlled by the hard left and intends, quite understandably, to grip the entire party.

Below, I reproduce a letter a young Tony Blair MP wrote to his then Labour leader Michael Foot in 1982 after reading a book titled ‘Debts of Honour’. Put to one side negative, or indeed positive, emotions about Mr. Blair,and examine his ideas.

I have edited out some of the letter simply for brevity, but the thrust of it is intact.

Dear Michael…

The first thing that struck me about Debts of Honour was the prison of ignorance which my generation has constructed for itself. How many of us have read Haslitt, Paine, Brailsford or even Swift (apart from Gulliver’s Travels) in the original? And it’s not the fact of scholarship or a case of educated oneupmanship. Bruce Page (former editor of the New Statesman) always littered everything he wrote with references and quotations from obscure literati, politicians, churchmen etc but one never felt enlightened by it. These were just vast piles of learning heaped on the reader’s plate till he felt positively bilious…..

It has shown me how narrow is our source of modern political inspiration. Look at Thatcher and Tebbit and how they almost take pride in the rigid populism of their political thought…..Even in our own party (though to a much lesser degree) there is a tendency against letting the mind roam free. In this I can’t help feeling the continual assertion of Marxism with Socialism is in part to blame. Like many middle class people I came to Socialism through Marxism (to be more specific through Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky). The trouble with Marxism is that it is fine if you make it your political servant but terrible if it becomes your political master.

I actually did trouble to read Marx first hand. I found it illuminating in so many ways; in particular, my perception of the relationship between people and the society in which they live, was irreversibly altered. But ultimately it was stifling because it sought to embrace in its philosophy every facet of existence. That of course is its attraction to many. It gives them a total perspective on life. But that can simply become an excuse to stop searching for the truth.

Political thought did not begin nor shall it end with Marx. Yet it is impossible to understand the 30-40 age group in today’s Labour Party without understanding the pervasiveness of Marxist teaching. For me, at university, left-wing politics was Marx and the liberal tradition was either scorned or analysed only in terms of its influence on Marx. It is so abundantly plain when I read Debts of Honour that there is a treasure trove of ideas that I never imagined existed. We need to recover the searching radicalism of these people and the breadth of vision they had.

…our left is in danger of falling prey to its perennial fault: introspection. There are many of us who were highly critical of the last Labour government who are tired now of retracing incessantly that same old ground. I know that in the Labour Coordinating Committee (of which I am a member), there are many who have that feeling. There is an arrogance and self-righteousness about many of the groups on the far left which is deeply unattractive to the ordinary would-be member: and a truly absurd gulf between the subject matter and language of the legion of pamphlets they write, and the people for whom the pamphlets are supposed to be written. There’s too much mixing only with people with whom they agree. I wonder sometimes whether they would prefer to address a meeting of the converted than the unconverted. I can honestly say that I am at my happiest addressing people that don’t necessarily agree but are willing to listen.

That’s important inside and outside of the Party. Democracy isn’t just about the right to express your views, but the right also to have them listened to.

…What I am saying is that the spirit of Debts of Honour is precisely what we need in the Labour Party at the moment. I’ve no right whatever to do this, but if you’ve struggled this far, I don’t suppose you’ll mind! If I were writing your speech at conference this year, I would make the following points:

(1) On Militant, I would say this. No one has an inalienable right, irrespective of their political views or actions, to belong to the Labour Party. We have a constitution and we have firm principles upon which that constitution is founded. Those principles are the achievement of socialism and the achievement of it, by the Party, through Parliament.

It is a rule of our constitution that there should not be organisations operating within the Party with their own programme, principles and policy i.e. there should not be a party within a party. That is a correct and necessary rule, not a constitutional accident. Without it, you will find organisations pursuing aims within the party inconsistent with the party’s principles and pursuing them in a way that diverts the party’s attention and undermines its will and effectiveness.

To tolerate that would not merely be wrong within the constitution it would be unfair to the party’s ordinary members: the rest of the party would be vulnerable to the organisational manoeuvres of the sect. So it is nonsense to say that Militant or any other group has a right to exist in the Party; or that it is undemocratic to set limits to their activities. Quite the opposite; if a sect is acting outside the constitution and pursuing aims contrary to the principles of that constitution, it would be undemocratic not to stop them….

The reason there is an attempt, an intellectually dishonest attempt, to divert people in the Party from a discussion of Militant is that once the facts about Militant are examined, the true role of that sect and its activity is plain. The NEC found it was plain.

Where will you see in the speeches proposing the “no witch-hunt” resolutions, a consideration of the fact that Militant have 34 regional organisers working full-time, whose remit and instructions we know nothing about; the fact that Militant policy is decided by a central committee who meet in private and issue instructions by diktat to the Militant members; the fact that Militant hold annual conferences from which ordinary party members are banned; the fact that Militant was born with a policy of “entryism” into the Party; the fact that their avowed primary sources of inspiration are Lenin and Trotsky, people who no matter how mighty in their own way, derided the notion of socialism through Parliament, which is a notion fundamental to our beliefs?

…. In other words, I think that we should go on the attack. I truly believe that it is Militant and others that are the anti-democrats. Why then allow them a monopoly of socialist virtue? I also think the whole question of the 1950s and the spectre of purges is misleading. Historical analogies can be superficially attractive, but on close analysis, plain wrong. You knew Bevan as well as any. Were you and his supporters really like the ultra-left of today? Would he, in his battle for the deputy leadership really have sat silent though the quite horrendous (in some places) practices of TB’s ultra supporters last year, and refused to condemn?

…I would appeal, too, for a sense of purpose in the Party. We have a duty much higher than the duty to any grouping or tendency or section of opinion within the Party. It is a duty we owe to the people in our country, to save them from a cruel and bigoted government, that has made disaster and despair a fact of their everyday lives. Over the past two years, we have set an example to the country of how an opposition should not behave; we must now set an example of how it should behave.

…Above all, let democratic debate be democratic; put your views calmly and listen with an open mind to your opponent.

Anyhow, many apologies for going on at such length. I expect I will reconsider sending this on re-reading it.

With best wishes,

Tony Blair

A year later Mr. Foot oversaw a general election manifesto considered hard left and out of touch with the electorate. It was dubbed ‘The longest suicide note in history’ and Labour was hammered in the polls. Mrs. Thatcher was returned to power, and the Conservative Party remained in government until a still young Tony Blair MP modernized Labour and became Prime Minster in 1997 – 15 years after he wrote the above letter. If there is a huge split in the Labour party, as opposed to the splinter of the 80s, with the majority of the soft left and centre left leaving, then history won’t repeat itself, but this second time around it will be a farce.

This article was originally published on The What And The Why and can be read here.