Andy Beckett, The Searchers: Five Rebels, Their Dream of a Different Britain, and Their Many Enemies (Allen Lane 2024), 560pp. Andy Beckett, The Searchers: Five Rebels, Their Dream of a Different Britain, and Their Many Enemies (Allen Lane 2024), 560pp.

Andy Beckett’s The Searchers provides a thoughtful consideration of five leaders of the Labour left, their relation to mass movements, and political impact, finds Kevin Crane

One of the funniest things about Liz Truss’ stint as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – and competition for that is fierce – was that a book about her rise to power was unable to be released before she lost said power. Out of the Blue was hastily reworked as a story about her rise and fall which slunk, almost unnoticed, out into the shops weeks after people weren’t even talking about her anymore. That was an extreme case of publishing getting outmanoeuvred by events, and I mention it because The Searchers by Andy Beckett was released only eighteen days before Rishi Sunak declared that his terrible premiership would be ending suddenly. However, whatever happens in July, unlike Out of the Blue, both its contents and subjects will continue to provoke interest and inspiration.

Beckett’s book is a slightly unconventional thing, being a parallel biography of five people: Tony Benn, Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingston and John McDonnell. Now, the author is clear that many books have been written about, and by, those politicians, but he justifies his project by combining their stories into a coherent narrative that gives us a dimension that is normally excluded from British political biography. This isn’t just the story of left versus right, although that is absolutely present, it’s also a much more interesting tale of the clash between top-down and bottom-up visions of politics.

New Left, not Old Labour

The Searchers kicks off its narrative in, very specifically, the year 1968. Beckett is adamant that his protagonists cannot be understood without starting from the explosive political situation of that year, and that their politics are absolutely defined by the lessons that they took from the social movements and struggles that came to define how we think about ’68.

The story has to begin with Tony Benn, because he was so much older than the others, but The Searchers is not here to dwell on his younger days as a leftwing, but ultimately quite conventional, Labour parliamentarian. When 1968 hits, he begins his journey from literal technocrat – and to be fair, he was actually quite an astute and far-sighted Minister of Technology – to radical, when he attends a student occupation and does something most politicians would never lower themselves to: listening to what the people had to say. The ideas swirling in the movements were completely novel, and he became enthusiastic for their linking of socialist values with libertarian and radically democratic ideals that formed the basis of this New Left.

The other subjects are young adults at this time, so ’68 is more naturally formative for them, and they can be considered natives of the New Left. Also, unlike Benn, none of them were posh, but that aside, the Big Four of the Socialist Campaign Group were really quite different personalities. They have additionally always had slightly different ideologies: Corbyn’s being a moral-force socialism in the tradition of William Morris, McDonnell being an afficionado of Marxism in general and Antonio Gramsci in particular, and Livingstone always having at least a foot in anarchism, according to Beckett. Abbott’s politics were, by necessity, shaped slightly differently due to her being West Indian and growing up in the shadow of the other emergent political force in 1968: she was heavily influence by Black liberation movements in response to the growth of mass racism in the country, led by the notorious demagogue Enoch Powell.

The critical decision that all four took was that they sought to implement the aspirations of the New Left, not by revolutionary or extra-parliamentary means, as many other people at the time decided, but by going into the Labour Party and bringing those aspirations to fruition by taking the politics of the movements into the institutions with them. In the newly radicalised Tony Benn, they found an obvious leader and mentor for this quest.

It was an ambitious project, far removed from the mundanities that were supposed to be the norm in the politics of the British Labour Party, which had historically made a fetish of the most limited, unimaginative and parochial thinking. New Leftists thought differently and globally: our heroes travel extensively and educate themselves about modes of oppression, and movements for liberation, of diverse peoples across the globe. They drew connections from these to their own lives and political causes. In some cases, their stances became the political norm – in the case of opposition to South African Apartheid or gay rights – but in others they would be intrinsically opposed to the political mainstream, most significantly over the question of war.

London Calling

Although Beckett never explicitly says as much, there is a sixth main character in this book: London itself. The sprawling city (technically several cities, as it actually is) and it’s ever-shifting physical and political geography are utterly integral to The Searchers. Part of the reason the Big Four were able to become councillors while all still quite young is that, as mentioned earlier, the London Labour Party was in tatters in 1968, as indeed was London. Britain’s capital was in hard decline in the 1960s, full of ageing unmaintained housing, rough neighbourhoods and collapsing transport infrastructure. But it was also changing in less morbid ways: immigration had brought new ethnic communities and cultural shifts were allowing the LGBT community to begin to coalesce and express itself for the first time.

A Labour Party significantly hollowed out by electoral failure and its lack of relevance to new demographics was, frankly, crying out for reinvention. New Leftists getting involved in Labour found plenty of opportunities to fight for their ideals: getting better housing and transport for the working class and fighting for the rights of the marginalised. They did, however, encounter establishment hostility to these things from the get-go.

Media attacks have, quite simply, been something that they all had to put up with, despite the tone and severity of them never being in the realms of the reasonable. It’s actually easy to forget that the monstrous coverage that the Corbyn leadership received in 2019 was really only a dialling-up of a vicious method that the British press always applies when covering the left, with absolutely anti-democratic intent. It never stops at name-calling either: right-wing editors in this country are fully aware that their demonisation of socialist politicians have always incited a section of the public to go much further and threaten physical violence toward them, even their families and children. This is seen as a desirable outcome by the Tory media barons.

Despite the hostility of almost all the press, however, reinvented London Labour was actually somewhat successful in reinventing London. Ken Livingstone, in particular, defied political expectations by becoming a local politician with national notoriety. His Greater London Council administration became a sort of municipal expression of the New Left politics he and his comrades championed. This was partially an economic programme – with a big focus on redistributive housing and a somewhat ahead-of-the curve environmentalist view on public transport – but it was also cultural. The GLC became an unlikely, but vital, component of Punk London. The Tories, of course, absolutely hated everything about all this, and Margaret Thatcher would eventually abolish the GLC as an act of utter political spite, ludicrously leaving one of the world’s largest capital cities with no city-wide administration. This absurdity would continue until New Labour finally restored one, decades later, unintentionally handing ‘Red Ken’ an opportunity to pick up where he left off.

The focus on London is so marked in this book, that I can actually imagine it might frustrate some readers. People in Scotland, particularly, may notice that their country is almost conspicuously absent from the narrative. The Upper Clyde shipbuilder’s work-in gets its due as an example of the democratised working-class struggle for which Benn was becoming an enthusiast. After this, however, there are only passing references to the Scottish National Party and the 2014 independence referendum, despite these being decisive in Labour’s shock defeat the next year. The people and politics of Ireland, and Chile for that matter, loom larger as political presences in The Searchers, and I think that this in its own way tells us something about Beckett’s slice of the Labour Left: it actually didn’t have strong roots in large chunks of Britain, despite other radical expressions of Labour in places like Merseyside and South Yorkshire. This is the origin of the old theory, which Beckett references but doesn’t overstate, that right-wing New Labour was a Northern revenge against the London-centric New Left.

Two Souls of Socialism, and the Party

Like any honest account, The Searchers has to impress upon the reader that the right-wing of the Labour Party has political beliefs and methodology that are both very unpleasant, and very strange. Indeed, part of the reason that they have succeeded in confounding the left – both the traditional and new sorts – is that there’s an extent to which their opponents don’t fully believe that they will drop to the levels of degeneracy to which they will cheerfully go. The New Left, in particular, always suffered from an inherent disadvantage that their love of democratising values, of pluralism and of diversity made it really very hard to comprehend the bitterness, pettiness and sectarianism of the party’s right. This is part of the reason why Tony Benn could not outmanoeuvre the dirty tricks used to oust him from parliament in 1983, and then Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t crush the various plots against his leadership three decades later: they could barely believe the conspiracies against them could be real.

The personality who is leading Labour at any given time has a significant impact on the party, and the book does capture this. Soft-left leaders, such as John Smith and Ed Miliband, provide the radical left more leeway to operate, while right-wing leaders will restrict them, and this affects the party both at its roots and in parliament. This was thrown into very sharp relief when Corbyn shockingly became leader: both the membership of his support base, and of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, were strikingly composed of people who were either rather old, or rather young. Generation X was, from a Labour politics perspective, solidly Blairite. This has implications for the trajectory of the current, hysterically reactionary regime inside the party.

The New Leftists used authority in the party to implement the ideals of the social movements in practice, as Livingstone had in London municipal government and Corbyn did when running the parliamentary opposition. One of the most useful choices that Beckett makes towards the end of the book is that rather than spending a long time talking about Corbyn’s battles with the Parliamentary Labour Party – there are plenty of books about that already – he decides to focus instead on remembering some of the positive experiences that were had during the phase of ‘peak Corbyn’ around and just after the 2017 general election. That moment seemed to offer a chance for genuine optimism, in a world that had been crisis-ridden for ten years at that point. Labour seemed to have become a vehicle for actually changing the world. Summits were held and excitedly produced documents were circulated about how society could be improved. While some of this was genuinely novel material, a lot of the ideas about ‘21st century socialism’ were consciously building on ideas from the New Left of decades earlier. Tony Benn missed out by mere years on living to see this, but it would doubtless have pleased him that ideas about workers’ control and socially useful production that he had championed at Upper Clydeside and the Lucas Aerospace works were inspiring new generations of socialists.

Beckett has to remind everyone that these debates were happening, because officially we have all been required to forget it. This is made easy for the British establishment because the institutional remnant of ‘peak Corbyn’ is basically nothing. All the intelligent, thought-provoking manifestos, all the enthusiastically attended events, all the hope and optimism was swept aside once Corbyn was out and Keir Starmer imposed his austere regimen of waving Union Jacks and cosying up to finance capital. It is difficult to avoid the question of whether the liberatory politics of the social movements that inspire the New Left were ever compatible with the structures of the Labour Party.

Contradiction between their politics and their party has always been a problem that the New Leftists could not resolve in a crisis. This first came to a head in the early 1980s, when the Tory war against the GLC was in its most ferocious phase, and Ken Livingston’s cherished subsidised public-transport fares policy was being destroyed through unprincipled legal means. He and McDonnell, a key figure in his administration at the time, fell out severely on how to resist these attacks, with Ken favouring an inside-the-system fix against John calling for a campaign of civil disobedience and direct action. This would have mobilised the GLC’s popularity amongst so many London communities. It is an irony that the anarchist-minded Livingstone was too cautious to go for the latter; he wanted a ‘safe’ plan, rather than drag Labour into an extra-legal confrontation with Thatcher’s government. It completely failed, the Tories won a victory for their anti-social motorist voters (at the expense of London’s poor and the environment), and the two socialist politicians were mutually hostile to each other for years afterwards.

The defeat of Corbyn’s leadership had a similar failure to reach out to the movements at its heart. When Beckett does get into the declining phase of the Corbyn leadership, he notes that as the Tory/Labour-right political cartel closed in on Jeremy, his leadership responded to attacks by putting itself in an even worse situation. Corbyn became leader on the basis of his credentials as a voice for and a part of the mass movements against war, austerity and racism. He was always at his strongest surrounded by the people at rallies, on protests or at picket lines. He and his movement were, ultimately, weak and heavily outnumbered in the House of Commons and its propaganda outriders in the mainstream press. Yet rather than trying to regain ground by turning back to the movement, Corbyn’s labour tried to retreat into a refuge in parliament that it simply did not have.

Legacies Denied

At the time of writing, Labour is poised to win an election, despite having shed rather than gained votes, and with a leader whose hatred of the left is so deep as to be almost comedic. Starmer and his people speak with nothing but vitriol about the left in the party, claiming that it represents only a history of failure. This is bullshit on multiple levels, based on their inherently dishonest view of the past. Actually, the Socialist Campaign Group have had a substantial impact on British politics, but it’s a complicated picture.

On one hand, their mission to realise the liberatory goals of New Leftism have been so successful that some of their values have ceased to be politics and simply become culture. Diane Abbott’s work on black representation in British public life made a huge impact: one remembered significantly better by ordinary black Britons than by the political establishment, particularly her own party. The Labour left was accused of all kinds of treachery for promoting dialogue with Irish republicanism, only for this to later form the basis of lasting peace in Northern Ireland. They were told that their support for LGBT people was electoral poison and ‘loony’, but many of the people that claimed this can’t even remember that they were ever anti-gay. The idea that politicians have to be pro-active on environmental protection is also one that starts with Tony Benn, John McDonnell and Ken Livingston. London itself has, culturally, been significantly shaped by the legacy of New Left thinking, even though in its present form as a glittering rent-trap, it in no way resembles the crumbling place it was when it was the cradle of the movement.

But that points to other aspects of the mission that have been mostly defeats. On the economy, the left’s enemies reign supreme, even as the capitalist economic system is failing. Far from achieving any sort of democratised, open-access economy, wealth and property are in far fewer hands today than they were in the 1970s, and Britain is more socially unequal than it has been for generations. Housing and transport are again crises that urgently need to be solved. We are failing on climate-change targets, even while climate change causes massive damage all around us. Horrifically, none of these things are deemed ‘election issues’ by our political-media establishment, since they are excessively leftwing talking points.

As for the questions of war and peace, Britain looks set to embrace policies of hawkishness and deference to American militarism that may even surpass the dark days of Tony Blair’s alliance with the vicious George W Bush, and the Tory/Labour-right cartel are adamantly supporting Israel’s genocide in Gaza. It has once again fallen to ordinary people, taking to the streets week after week, to argue the case for peace.

Even enthusiasts for the incoming Labour government are struggling to argue that it is going to be capable of dealing with the multiple crises affecting Britain and the world. This is a consequence of Labour purging itself of independent thought, precisely to destroy the legacy of Corbyn and the left.

For a group like Counterfire, which derives from the wing of the post-1968 left that rejected working through Labour and reformism, the point here is absolutely not to say childishly, ‘told you so’. All five of this book’s subjects are substantial and serious people with whom we have worked in the movements consistently for decades. What we do need to so is remember this history of political struggle and apply its lessons to the very turbulent future ahead. This book is a positive contribution, because it is about the power of mass movements and the value of leaders who understand those movements, as well as the limitations of both. Given its epic scale, and the rapidity with which it was written and edited, The Searchers is remarkably slick and coherent, but its real value lies in sharing its subjects’ focus on politics as something working-class people experience and participate in.

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