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Tony Benn at the 1979 Labour Party conference. Former Prime Minister James Callaghan is on the right.

As support for Jeremy Corbyn has grown so has the determination of those who have run Labour for years to hang on to as much power as they can - this is not new says Lindsey German

Tony Blair has repeatedly (and no doubt against much advice) gone into print to express his contempt, frustration, anger and bewilderment at the temerity of the Labour Party in moving to the left. He has been joined by many others, all expressing that combination of out rage, bewilderment and entitlement over developments that threaten everything they stand for.

As support for Jeremy Corbyn has grown so has the determination of those who have run Labour for so many years to hang on to as much power as they can. Again this is not new. Lack of respect for democracy has been a hallmark of the Labour right at times when the left is strong. It is at certain points backed up by the British state, and is always cheered to the echo by the media.

There are plans afoot to destabilise Jeremy if elected. There are those who want a full frontal attack on him and his policies. Others favour a drawn-out campaign that wears down his support, hopes for bad polling figures, and minimises the damage to the right’s interests.

Two parties in one

Already the pressure of the election campaign has led to partial retreats from Jeremy’s previous positions on the EU and NATO. There will be a constant pressure on Jeremy to retreat and compromise on a range of policies that got him elected in the first place. It would attempt to force Labour to continue with the neoliberal consensus which has led to its failure in two elections, seen as a pale and unconvincing imitation of the Tories.

It is often said that there are two Labour parties. There is a right-wing, pro-capitalist party, centred usually in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Historically, this gained much support from sections of the trade union bureaucracy, which created Labour as its ‘voice in Parliament’. Then there is a left, composed largely of the activists and campaigners.

History bears this out. Labour, because of its links with the trade union movement and thus the organised working class, is usually less favoured by the ruling class and its supporters in the media than the Tories, who are the openly ruling-class party. We have seen recently the enthusiasm from such quarters for a Tory majority government, unhindered by compromises.

However, at times of greater social crisis, or when the Tories have become bitterly unpopular, a Labour government can be an effective Plan B for the ruling class – but only on condition that the aspirations of those who voted for it are dampened down, and as long as it remains in the safe hands of the PLP.

Universal suffrage after the First World War made Labour a player electorally and it was in 1924 that Labour formed its first (minority) government. Despite its caution in government, it lasted barely 9 months before another election was called. That election was lost by Labour, largely because of a red scare started in the Daily Mail around a letter, purportedly from the Russian revolutionary Zinoviev to the British Communist Party. This was taken to mean that the government’s signing of a peace treaty with Russia would mean the “Bolshevisation” of Britain. The “Zinoviev Letter” is now known to be a fake.

Labour’s re-election in 1929, with Ramsey MacDonald as its leader, coincided with the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. The government was faced in 1931 with a choice whether to cut benefits for the unemployed, or to refuse to make working people pay for the crisis. The cabinet split, MacDonald forming a coalition “National Government” with the Tories to enforce the benefit cuts.

Out of office

Labour was out of office for a decade and very damaged. It regained some votes in the election of 1935, but it was only in wartime that it entered government again. The wartime government from 1940 was effectively a coalition between the Tory Winston Churchill and Labour, since so many Conservatives had been associated with appeasement of Hitler.

Labour’s 1945 landslide was a result of mass radicalisation during the war. But even this high point, marked by the creation of the NHS and nationalisation, was characterised by its caution, with the first imposition of charges in the NHS, and a reactionary foreign policy that developed the nuclear bomb.

The Wilson governments of the 1960s achieved a number of very important liberal reforms including legalised abortion, the abolition of capital punishment, gay rights, equal pay and theatre censorship.

But those governments, and the Wilson/Callaghan governments of 1974-9, increasingly saw their role as trying to contain what proved to be the biggest upsurge in working-class struggle since the 1920s. Both in the 1960s and 1970s they were at the mercy of the money markets and the IMF, the latter imposing Greek-style spending cuts from the mid-1970s onwards.

Labour faced defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, not because its policies were too left-wing, but because it had cut wages, and tried to cut back the public sector. Mired in increasingly bitter disputes over these issues, Labour lost. This provoked a major swing to the left within the party.

Thatcher and defeat

It is often forgotten that Margaret Thatcher was bitterly unpopular early on. Unemployment rose dramatically and there were huge demonstrations against it across the country, involving many Labour members. Tony Benn, a former cabinet minister who had been demoted by Wilson and who now moved to the left, headed up a campaign to transform Labour.

Much of the left’s campaigning focussed on changing Labour’s structures, raising methods of election, deselection of unrepresentative MPs and equality for women and black members. Benn’s run for Deputy Leader in 1981 against right-winger Denis Healey was a high point for the Labour left, Benn coming within half a percent of winning.

However, victory for Healey was not enough for some of the right: they split to form the Social Democratic Party rather than see the left make further gains. The real story of the 1983 election is the willingness of the right to split the party, rather than see the left win. Had Labour been united, it is likely that Thatcher would have been defeated. History would be rather different.

The right and centre used this defeat to push Labour further to the right, expelling left wingers, and opposing the left in the Miners’ Strike, in the campaign against local government cuts, and much more. Neil

Kinnock, then leader, was an electoral failure and pilloried by the press, but he paved the way for Blair and the idea that Labour could only win by ‘triangulation’, by appealing to a small middle ground between Tories and Labour. This, too, has ended in failure, with many such people preferring the original to the imitation.

Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has changed all that. It has shown that left ideas can be popular, and has broken the consensus on a range of issues. A trio of former leaders, Blair, Brown and Kinnock, along with much of the Labour right are attacking Jeremy. This is not about ‘electability’. As Blair admitted, he would rather lose than see Labour win under the left. It is about the fear that the left will become popular. The stakes could not be higher in the months ahead.

Lindsey German

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.