Electing a Corbyn government is just the start, in order to take on the state the left must remember the lessons from the 70s, writes Chris Nineham
Chris Nineham’s new book, The British State: A Warning, published by Zero Books, is released on October 25 at the London launch with Francesca Martinez.
For the first time in a generation, we have the chance of a radical Labour government.
To get an idea of what to expect and how the left should prepare, we need to know the history of the last such experiment.
The Wilson/Callaghan Labour government was elected in 1974 on the back of a wave of militant strikes.
The parallels with today are clear. Labour’s manifesto was the most radical ever. It promised a “fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power in favour of working people and their families,” to make “power in industry genuinely accountable to the workers and the community at large.”
High-profile leftwingers were in key Cabinet positions. Tony Benn was given the job of industry minister. He chose Liverpool socialist MP Eric Heffer as his deputy. Michael Foot, the only survivor of the Attlee government, was minister of employment.
Despite being a minority government, in its first six months it settled with the striking miners, scrapped a Tory Housing Act, raised welfare payments and increased taxes on the rich.
Its momentum was sustained through a second election, in which Labour won a small overall majority, and into 1975. Then the government ran into problems.
Even though much of the elite claimed to embrace Keynesianism at the time, they regarded the government’s programme as an affront.
Benn was a particular target. Soon after the election, a director of the engineering firm GKN threatened him with an industry-wide investment strike if his company was targeted for nationalisation.
Benn experienced bare-faced obstruction from civil servants. He wrote at the time that his permanent secretary Sir Anthony Part treated him “like a consultant psychiatrist would a particularly dangerous patient.”
Part warned Benn that if he tried to go ahead with his economic programme there would be a “as big a confrontation with industrial management as the last government had with the trade unions.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Former MI5 officer Peter Wright later claimed that during the second election of 1974, “MI5 would arrange for selective details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic pressmen.”
Overseas development minister Judith Hart was sacked on false claims from the security services that she had communist links.
Benn felt that he was under surveillance. When he asked the home secretary, Merlyn Rees, if his phone was tapped, Rees told him he “couldn’t say yes or no.”
The security services were working with a range of extra-parliamentary organisations ready to take control of the country in the event of government collapse.
In 1974, Colonel Davis Stirling, previously with the Special Air Service, set up GB75, an organisation with the declared intention of taking over whose immediate aim was the subversion and disorientation of the Labour government.
As well as MI5 dirty tricks and coup plots, Wilson and his successor Callaghan experienced Civil Service obstruction, investment strikes, capital flight, and Bank of England and IMF blackmail.
The turning point came in the summer of 1975 when the left in Labour lost its referendum campaign against membership of the European Union (then the EEC).
This defeat for the left prompted Wilson to move against the radicals in his Cabinet. Heffer was sacked and Benn demoted, apparently after a deal that Wilson had made with the City. The balance of power in the Cabinet shifted decisively.
This was just the start. Later in the summer, sabotage and subversion shifted to the economic front. An oil price shock and the policy of printing money had generated a record 24.6 per cent inflation by 1975.
Unemployment had reached one million. Investors used inflation as an excuse to pull out of the British economy.
In the summer of 1975, there was a massive run on the pound. With the left defeated, the option of deepening government control over the economy and introducing currency controls was off the table.
Under pressure from the bankers and the international markets, the government ended up imposing wage restraint and seeking IMF loans tied to massive cuts in public spending.
At Labour’s conference leftwinger Michael Foot was given the job of justifying this change of direction.
“We face an economic typhoon of unparalleled ferocity, the worst the world has seen since the 1930s,” he said, and it needed to be faced with the “red flame of socialist courage.” He got a standing ovation.
But the speech signalled a 180-degree change of course and ended a 30-year run of full employment and expanding public services.
The following year, Wilson’s successor James Callaghan told conference that the Keynesian experiment was over: “We used to believe you could spend your way out of a recession,” he said, “I will tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.”
The cuts introduced were harsher than anything Thatcher managed. According to the Observer, 1977 saw the “sharpest decline in the real living standards of Britain’s working population in any year for at least a century.”
By 1978 the anger and bitterness exploded into a massive strike wave that fatally damaged the government.
Labour’s acceptance of the logic of the free market and the resulting disorientation of its base helped facilitate Thatcher’s neoliberal takeover.
The left now has its biggest opportunity since that moment 45 years ago, but we have to learn from the past to navigate the future.
Simply electing a left-wing Labour government is only the start. Neoliberalism is so embedded in the British state that the current regime will be even more hostile to change than it was in the 1970s.
What was missing then was an independent labour movement pushing the government forward and responding to attacks from the right.
If Corbyn gets elected we can’t be spectators. To force through radical change we will need mass mobilisations based on the social movements and the unions, drawing in the widest possible layers of the working population.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
More articles from this author
- Brighton 2021: Members speak out on Starmer, stitch ups and next steps for the left
- 'On the road to nowhere': Leah Levane on Labour, Starmer and the expulsions - video
- 'We need to move fast': Ken Loach on Starmer, socialism and building a new left - interview
- Gas and greed: Why Britain faces a special crisis
- Aukus: ratcheting up Western confrontation with China - video
- The tragedy after the tragedy: 9/11 and the war on Afghanistan
- Back to the future: revolutionary art on the Mersey