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  • Published in Book Reviews

The Labour Party in Historical Perspective shows that the Party has historically been revived by left resurgences, of which Corbyn is the latest, finds Graham Kirkwood

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The Labour Party in Historical Perspective, ed. David Morgan, Socialist History Society Occasional Publication no.42 (2018), 110pp.

So, the much predicted split off in the Labour Party finally happened, but it remains to be seen how successful it will be. Many comparisons have been made with the split in 1981, when David Owen, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP). This collection of essays sheds some light on this and other complexities of the Labour Party. It contains chapters on a diverse range of topics including local studies of Labour in Yorkshire, Liverpool and Oxford as well as a chapter on Leonard Woolf, the husband of the novelist Virginia Woolf.

Two chapters are of particular note given the current unusual political situation in which we find ourselves. The first is a chapter on the origins of Jeremy Corbyn by Graham Taylor. Interestingly, rather than a biography of the Labour Party leader which the title might suggest, this is a study of the ebbs and flows in the Labour Party itself, and the swings between left and right which have taken place over its one-hundred-plus-year history. Taylor’s central thesis is that the history of the Labour Party is punctuated by corrections where the left exerts itself and in effect rescues the party from electoral oblivion. This can be seen in 1892 when Keir Hardie won the election in West Ham as an independent leading to the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), then in 1914 when the ILP (then a socialist group within the larger Labour Party) almost uniquely opposed the war; 1932 when the leader of the Poplar Council rebellion, George Lansbury took over as leader; then again in 1960, 1972, 1980 and most recently 2015 with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

Right splits and left corrections

It is useful to think about the split in 1981, there are many differences to the period we are in now. For one the Gang of Four as they were known, were all senior figures inside the Labour Party; they had all held senior positions inside Labour governments including Chancellor of the Exchequer (Jenkins) and Foreign Secretary (Owen). The seven (then eight) this time round are virtual nonentities. Also, in terms of Taylor’s thesis about corrections, the Gang of Four split came after Labour had suffered a catastrophic defeat in 1979 to Margaret Thatcher’s Tories, in contrast Jeremy Corbyn has been a success story increasing Labour’s vote from 30.4% in 2015 under Ed Miliband to 40.0% in 2017. He has also overseen the membership of the party more than doubling from 220,000 in 2015 to 515,000 in July 2016.

This is why it is so disingenuous for Ian Austin who has also quit as a Labour MP although he hasn’t joined the ‘Independent Group’, to say that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been disastrous for the Labour party in places such as Dudley, the implication being that socialism is a nice after dinner discussion topic appealing only to the cosmopolitan elites. He highlights how there used to be four Labour MPs and now only one (none as he has resigned). A cursory look at the facts however shows that these seats were lost in 2010, it is only under Corbyn that the vote has started to recover and why the media can’t point out this simple fact is bewildering.

There is a real danger however that the new so-called independent group of MPs could employ wrecking tactics by standing in marginal seats taking votes from Labour (but having said that maybe also from the Tories). In 1981, the split of 28 MPs from the right of the party to form the SDP helped keep the Tories in power in the election of 1983 when, in alliance with the Liberals they won more than 25% of the national vote. Labour won only 28%.

The Labour Party is a strange amalgam of forces from the ILP which, stood for ethical socialism, the trade unions and their bureaucracy, whom Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary called the ‘backbone of British Imperialism’, to the ‘socialism from above’ of the Fabians, with their distaste for the working class and its ways. In fact, it was the ethical socialism of the ILP which allowed them to avoid getting caught up in the jingoistic fervour at the start of World War One. In many ways Jeremy Corbyn can be seen as a modern day representative of ethical socialism.

Taylor argues that each correction by the left of the Party, is preceded by an upsurge in militancy in the working class, although he illustrates at least two occasions, in the late 1960s and in 1980, where the upsurge was more political than industrial with the anti-Vietnam war movement and the rise of CND and the peace movement. A similar case could be made for the rise of Corbynism in 2015; it was Jeremy Corbyn’s tireless work for the anti-war movement, as well as all the other causes to which he gave his time and effort, that led him to win the Labour leadership. Thinking it through, we should have seen it coming and made a tidy sum at the bookies; the Labour Party had opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of radicalised people in the UK allowing them a vote for a £3 supporters subscription. All these mainly young people who had been through the series of mobilisations against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq saw in Jeremy Corbyn the personification of that, a 400 to 1 outsider for the leadership he was not.

Labour and the law on strikes

Another chapter addresses the issue of the Labour Party and its attitudes to strikes. What now seems set in stone, no mass or flying pickets, the law on six pickets only, no secondary or sympathy action, and compulsory ballots, are all actually fairly recent changes to custom and practice. Labour’s White Paper, ‘In Place of Strife’ said this of sympathetic strike action in 1969, ‘trade unions have a long tradition of relying on the solidarity of union members working in different places, and it would be wrong to attach legal penalties’ (p.79).

Such restrictions on trade unions’ freedom to organise effectively are a result of the anti-trade-union legislation brought in during the Thatcher government, and were opposed by 'the Labour Party and the TUC until the ‘historic shift’ and ‘profound break’ instigated by Neil Kinnock, arguably the least successful Labour leader ever, under the mantra of ‘new realism’ following the catastrophic defeat of the miners in 1985. Consequently, the Labour manifestos of 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015 made no mention of the ‘strike question’. Taking an increasingly individualist approach, more and more of the Labour leadership, and those in the TUC, saw the European Social Charter as being the key defence mechanism of workers’ rights in the UK, which goes some way to explaining their position on membership of the European Union and Brexit now.

It wasn’t until the 2017 manifesto that the retreat stopped, and Labour called for a repeal of the 2016 Trade Union act, a small but significant step in the right direction. It is important to remember that often these laws are only enforceable during strikes when the union officials are in control, as was shown in the recent UCU strike. Shoddy deals can be rejected without a ballot when the rank and file are organised and moving into a position of control in a dispute.

The Labour Party in Historical Perspective is a useful collection of articles, which puts current problems and conflicts into a longer-term context. The present period has its own peculiarities, but it is certain now as in the past that success for working-class politics only comes with a determined and confident left, active both inside and outside the Labour Party.

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