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Roy Jenkins and Chuka Umunna. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Roy Jenkins and Chuka Umunna. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

The Blairites are a threat to Corbyn, but the left has the resources to win and there are important differences with the era of the SDP split, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Much of the left greeted news this past week that seven (now nine) Blairite MPs had quit Labour with derision. But if history is to be our judge, it must be clear that more turbulence and splits will soon follow.

Indeed, the Gang of Four (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams), which split in January 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party, was followed in following months by 28 Labour MPs (and one Tory).

The SDP threat

It is easy today to forget just what a major threat the SDP became to the Labour Party. In alliance with the Liberals, it gained 25.4 to Labour’s 27.6 per cent in the 1983 general election.

Moreover, though it failed in subsequent elections to break through, the SDP split did have a major impact on the Labour Party. By splitting the Labour vote, it contributed to the ousting of Michael Foot as Labour leader and the rightward shift in Labour from 1983 onwards.

The SDP had this effect in part because its presence to the right of the Labour Party enhanced the position of those who argued that Labour had lost the 1983 election on account of having moved too far to the left and having lost the middle ground.

The fallacy that Labour was too left wing in the 1980s

But while superficially persuasive, the argument was a fallacy. It was based on amnesia. As recently as the start of 1980, the government of Margaret Thatcher had seemed very shaky indeed. She was presiding over mass unemployment and her onslaught on the steel workers made her very unpopular, and mass strikes had resulted.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party had a double digit lead in the polls. It had just shed its right wing leaders who had presided over the disastrous 1974-9 government, and there was a rising left associated with Tony Benn. The new leader Michael Foot was a compromise candidate who reflected a leftward shift in the party, but he was on the soft left.

Labour did support and organise demonstrations against unemployment, but it did not throw its weight behind industrial action or call for the overthrow of the government. In fact, Foot cautioned that Labour should wait until the next election. This not only gave Thatcher a lifeline, it led to working class demoralisation as the strikes lost.

Defeat of extra-parliamentary movements strengthens the right

Wider class demoralisation was therefore part of the picture when the SDP was launched. After the 1981 split, the drift rightward in Labour continued. Benn narrowly lost an election for deputy party leader to the right winger Denis Healey. Foot supported Thatcher’s Falklands War in 1982, which could not but have contributed to the disorientation of the left in wider society. Furthermore, witch-hunts on the Trotskyist Militant Tendency began in earnest.

By the time of 1983, even though the left was comparatively strong in the Labour Party, it was weaker in wider society. Election defeat in that year could not but have a massive impact on Labour.

Since the Labour Party is primarily oriented on parliament, not extra-parliamentary struggle, the existence of an electoral pole to the right, the SDP, on the one hand, and the slow decline of industrial struggle that had started in the 1970s, on the other, had already strengthened the right against the left.

The SDP’s revenge: Tony Blair

But electoral defeat in 1983 intensified the process. The Labour Party elected a new soft left leader, Neil Kinnock, who promised to unite the party, like Foot had promised. But he decided to move the party even more towards the centre ground, refusing to express or organise solidarity with the Miners’ Strike in 1984-5.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kinnock lost two elections in a row, in 1987 and 1992, before resigning. By that time, the SDP had fused with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats, who now trailed Labour by a greater margin than the Alliance had done in 1983.

Electorally speaking, then, the argument that moving even further right might capture more of the centre ground seemed plausible. Indeed, by 1994, Tony Blair had taken the reigns of the Party. He pushed for the symbolic removal of the Party’s famous Clause IV on socialisation of the means of production, and won the 1997 election.

Blairism’s record and the rise of left-wing resistance

Once in power, however, Blair’s social liberalism and hawkish foreign policy began to hammer Labour members and support. He lost 4 million votes by the time he quit as PM in 2007. His successor Gordon Brown led the party to a dismal election defeat in 2010 winning just 29 percent of the vote.

The duo had presided over the two catastrophes of our era. Blair was widely seen as the spokesman for George W. Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq in 2003. And Brown had liberalised the banking sector, contributing to the greatest slump in capitalist history starting in 2008 (and not over yet).

But the Blair and Brown era was also witness to the rebirth of class struggle in the United Kingdom, in the form of the rise of the extra-parliamentary mass social movements. The role of the extra-parliamentary left to the success of the likes of the Stop the War Coalition, which brought two million to the streets of the UK in 2003, was an important signal.

It showed that the supposed ideological hegemony of the right in British society was not nearly as total as had been suggested by the Blairites. In fact, there were large opinion poll majorities for a variety of left-wing policies.

The rise of Corbynism

Protest movements continued after Labour was ousted in 2010. In 2011, the TUC mobilised 500,000 against austerity. The rise of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in the years after that suggested the balance might shift towards more struggle from below. Then, something unexpected happened.

After the 2015 electoral defeat for Labour, moreover, tens of thousands either joined the Labour Party or registered as supporters to back the most left-wing candidate for leader: Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was known as a backbencher with Bennite sympathies from the 1980s, who was active in the social movements and worked alongside many on the left outside Labour.

Unlike in the aftermath of the defeats of the 1970s, then, this upswing in Labour left support has come on the back of a more confident set of extra-parliamentary movements. Moreover, unlike in 1983, the Labour election result in 2017 bucked the trend. It did not go down, but went up and almost reached the 1997 tally. Even though Labour did not win, it deprived the Tories of a majority.

This is not the 1980s

Thus, though there are some parallels with the 1980s after the SDP split, we are not doomed to repeating history. There are major differences now in comparison with then.

First, the left had experienced a series of major defeats which led to the rightward drift first in society then in the Labour Party in the 1980s. Now, we have seen the rise of the left on the back of the rise of social movements in wider society and a rise of support for Labour under Corbyn.

Second, Thatcherite neoliberalism was in its infancy and it developed momentum through the 1980s, transforming even the Labour Party by 1995. But we are now operating in a period after the 2008 crash, when neoliberalism is widely discredited globally and there are signs of political polarisation everywhere.

Third, the Labour splitters in the 1980s appeared to be moving with the mainstream, while they are now moving against the direction of the mass of Labour members and supporters. Their marriage with Tory MPs like Anna Soubry who defended the Tory record on austerity will not help their cause.

Fourth, the left winger Tony Benn lost in the deputy leadership election in 1981 and was forced to retreat, and Michael Foot was trounced in the 1983 general election; but Corbyn was elected twice as leader of the Labour Party and performed spectacularly in the 2017 election.

Fifth, the move of leftists into the Labour Party in the 1980s was a reflex in response to defeat and a move rightward, but today joining the Labour Party is for many the first political engagement after a period of social movement activism, and a move leftwards.

Face and defeat the right

All these differences between then and now should be a source of optimism and hope. But we should not be complacent. There are still weaknesses and pitfalls on our side. Industrial struggle is at historic lows. Left-wing scaffolding behind social movements should be much stronger. And Corbyn is still surrounded by enemies pretending to be friends.

Indeed, the push towards Labour Party unity – at the price of a second Brexit referendum – is being driven in particular by Corbyn’s enemies. Any new referendum would silence Jeremy and place the MPs who have split from the party at the forefront of the ‘Remain’ campaign. It would also alienate many working-class voters whom Labour needs to win any future election.

History should tell us that unity in the Labour Party comes at the expense of unity in the labour movement. This is because the majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party are on the right and hate the left. All their activities now are about defeating the left, rather than the Tories. The Blairite split is merely the tip of the iceberg.

If the left is to win, it has to resist the Blairites on Brexit, and to fight to topple the government and for a general election. This would shift the terrain of struggle from parliament, where the left is weak, to the streets and campaigning, where Corbyn and the left are much stronger.

There would be more challenges ahead, but a vision that includes ending austerity and transforming Britain in the interests of the many can inspire enthusiasm not just in the ranks of the Labour Party but across the labour movement.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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