As an avid reader, I’m always on the lookout for books on the shelves of family and friends, in case I can save myself a few bob by borrowing instead of buying. The book I have just finished, Kevin Myers’ “Watching the Door: A Memoir 1971-1978” was one such. When I was at home in Northern Ireland for spring break, I borrowed it from my mother, anticipating an interesting read about a controversial period in Irish history.
Memoirs are tricky things to pull off. I’ve read a few, including both of Harold Wilson’s tomes on his years in office, and Khrushchev’s self-justifying witterings (dictated, apparently, since the old bull was practically illiterate by some accounts). Both of those works displayed an awareness that posterity would judge them, and they sought to even the scoreboard just a little. Myers’ book was different, and not necessarily in a good way.
From the outset, Myers attempts to show that “worldly” cynicism which the later middle aged cast upon the ideals of youth, both theirs and others. I’ve always thought this was a bid on their part to justify to themselves abandoning ideals which they once had. If one can satirise those ideals, then the shame of inconsistency is rendered less of a weight to bear. Irish republicanism, socialism and popular movements in general each receive Myers’ loving attention in their turn.
Despite this, the book provides some interesting remarks. It is not written primarily to pass judgment upon the warring factions, though there is plenty of that, interspersed throughout. It is written from a human perspective. The author begins by considering a fire fight between British troops and the IRA which he witnessed. He saw the IRA drive up, but did not warn the British soldiers because he was not there to take sides.
This sets the scene for a wider consideration of his own personal motives, in going to Northern Ireland for the first time, in order to join the Nationalist Catholic community in defending their homes, then later in working as an RTE journalist north of the border. Despite the candid nature of Myers’ writing, his cynicism with respect to his youthful interest in ‘sex and socialism’ wrong-footed me from the start and I never really recovered.
For me, however, growing up in Northern Ireland, the book was a deeper provocation to muse upon what role I might have filled, had I grown up in the Belfast which my mother and her siblings grew up in. My mother came from near the now-infamous Falls Road, her whole family having lived in that part of Belfast for generations. Had I grown up amid Paisley’s threats to burn down Clonnard monastery and the rooting out of Catholics from mixed areas, would I have joined the IRA?
Against Myers’ writings, flashes of other histories kept crossing my mind as I read: the SWP and their support for the IRA, Max Hastings’ “Barricades in Belfast” and the 1980’s flirtations of the Labour left with Irish republicanism. I realised that trying to consider what I would have done was inextricably linked to my own impressions of the subsequent actions of the IRA and my distaste for the faux cultural and national discourses of the London expatriate community and their left wing sympathisers.
I went through my Irish nationalist phase between the ages of 12 and 14. I learned the anthem of the Republic in English and Irish, I went to the gaeltacht and gained my fainne, I sang the rebel songs. With the other IRA sympathisers, I looked on in righteous anger when the Orange Order were permitted to march down Ormeau Park and other areas where there were many Catholics, whom the Orangemen taunted for their losses during the Troubles and wished someone would shoot them in their smug faces.
Having grown up in Bangor, that most middle class of towns, my own early political experiences were limited and Irish republicanism was the first organised political movement I came into contact with, by virtue of having gone to a Catholic grammar school. Considering what I might have done during the Troubles, had I been born twenty or thirty years earlier, is not lightweight mental arithmetic as a result of these things.
Myers’ father had originally been an IRA man, before turning against them viciously and becoming that thing to behold amongst Dubliners, the true Irish Tory. Myers warmly describes how his father had cheered when watching successful British military engagements on the television, after the family had moved to England, where young Kevin Myers lived until his time came to go to university, at University College Dublin.
For young men of Myers’ generation, of his father’s generation and for generations further back in history, there were often cases when young men came of age in circumstances that might call them to join one of Ireland’s militant political movements. My generation has been an exception to that rule, though one still living in the shadow of choices and circumstances bequeathed to us from generations past. Had I been born a generation sooner, would I have joined the IRA?
Would it even have been my choice?
“The IRA ceasefire had ended a couple of days before, and bloodshed had vigorously resumed, as if making up for lost time. In nearby Ballymurphy, paratroopers had gunned down half a dozen people, one by one, each casualty a lure for the next vain-helper, who in turn had been shot, the icing on their cake a priest they finished off as he administered the last rites to their penultimate victim.”
I’ve discussed Irish politics often enough with aunts, uncles, my grandparents and my mother. Of my mother’s generation, plenty enough of them still maintain their links with the part of Belfast they grew up in. They might not go to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis but that is their roots. On plenty of occasions, perhaps over David Dunseath’s BBC Ulster radio programme Talkback, I have admitted my distaste for the IRA and their campaign of terrorism.
Yet faced with the quoted prose above, how could any young Catholic boy of previous generations have remained detached from the Republican movement? Indeed many of the young people who were caught up in the events of 1969 and later had been profoundly affected by the change that seemed to be sweeping the Western world in the late 1960’s, particularly the socialist movements in France in 1968. Myers himself comments how he thought, in 1969, that revolution was coming to Ireland.
My saving grace, perhaps, is that if Myers’ description of himself is accurate, he seems to have been precisely the type of student politico whom I loathe today. Myers seems like the vacuous sort who would have been taken in by the emotive rhetoric of Ogra hSinn Fein or the Socialist Workers’ Party, had he born in a slightly different time or place, in Ireland or England. Without claiming for myself special intellectual rigour, I would like to think that I’d never have descended to such political opportunism.
All of this is an academic discussion; I don’t even live in Northern Ireland anymore, and those who do are much more likely to be terrified by the ancient spectre of the Chuckle Brothers than by British soldiers walking the streets. While Blair et al take victory laps, however, I like to reflect that the conflict is far from over. Republicanism might be tamed for the time being, yet ominous events occur now that we may only appreciate in the future.
The DUP have now been outflanked to the right; a break away from their own party, on the grounds that the DUP is not hard-line enough, might be the early knell of mortality for Ian Paisley’s vehicle of bigotry. It happened with when the Vanguard movement outflanked the Official Unionist Party, then when the DUP outflanked the Ulster Unionist Party. Though Republican guns are now largely destroyed, that does not mean a changed global mood, casting back to the 1960’s, might not reawaken Ireland’s perennial beast.
I hope that the people of Northern Ireland won’t be confronted with this aspect of their past again, and I hope that if they are, this time around we can make the right choices. Next time, workers from Belfast to Derry and Coleraine to Newry might be able to stand together against the reactionary Churches, the reactionary political parties, the reactionary terrorist groups (and their suggested “old boys” association successor groups). Maybe young boys like Myers senior and junior, maybe my sons, won’t be compelled to make a choice between terrorism and socialism.
I probably shouldn’t be proud of this, geeky as it is, but TCF has got a mention from the Guardian’s news blog and I have been quoted directly. The whole article, which is about online debates over the NUT strike, can be read here.
Below is the relevant excerpt:
But another teacher, David Semple, is backing the strike. Before heading for a NUT rally in Kent, he wrote: “Literally thousands of teachers up and down the country run exam revision classes outside of school hours – both after school and during the holidays. Do they get paid for it? No, most of them don’t.”
Without wishing to seem like a self-aggrandizing publicity whore, may there be much more of this in the future!
I have decided; from now on, when declaring anything to be utterly appalling, I shall declare “That’s totally Boris!” This is in response to the news that Boris has managed to convince crazy case MP, Kate Hoey, to advise him on matters of sport, should he win the London mayoral race. I think the whole show is totally Boris.
Within the Labour Party there are plenty of members who flout the party line. There are members even within the PLP who can make disobedience into an art form. Some of them are genuinely principled men and women who have fought hard to get where they are, tooth and claw resisting the rightward march of the Party.
Then there are people like Kate Hoey.
The MP for Vauxhall is the infamous Chair of the Countryside Alliance, a group which has been attempting to channel funds to opponents of Labour. From which she earns a tidy figure somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand pounds. She also has a nice column for the Daily Telegraph.
Despite her sensible positions on things like the war on Iraq and Trident renewal, Hoey is one of those strange vaguely left wing people, like Frank Field, who aren’t part of the Campaign Group. She’s from an Ulster Unionist background as well, according to wikipedia.
Bit of a strange one.
(An excellent article written by Marsha-Jane can be read by all here)
It was Theodore Adorno, I think, who once asserted that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. I’ve always thought that a pretty poignant reminder of exactly the depth to which our emotions can be plumbed by the actions of other people.
Today myself and other trainee teachers were considering how best to teach the Holocaust to 170 year nine students, with whom we’ll be working on one afternoon, probably in May. When I came home I checked the news to find this article about the release of Grand Theft Auto IV.
Considering how violent society can seem today, the violence of the Holocaust which happened so long ago (so our children think) can seem diminished.
In class someone made the point that children grow up watching the news of wars, playing violent video games, seeing violent movies, using the language of violence. Bearing this in mind, how can we convey to them the enormity of the violence done to the Jews and the other prisoners of the Nazis?
The Holocaust Educational Trust has some of the right answers I think. Policies of not showing pictures of the dead bodies and the liberation of the camps, of not displaying to the children the uttermost grotesque scenes, are the right ones.
Much more subtle are the pictures of children’s shoes, or the pictures of the ‘veteran Jews’ who scoured the personal belongings of those who were gassed. Pictures as simple as that, along with stories about Jewish lives before World War II and about the Jews not merely as victims but as heroes, as villains, as people, are much more powerful.
One friend of mine, another teacher, thought that this would leave us open to charges of emotional manipulation. Having seen the Holocaust exhibit at the British museum, it’s not hard to see his point. I walked around the place, touched the train carriage and was nearly in tears myself.
Yet no one contests that these things happened. Six million Jews died and five million non-Jews, of the Slavic nations, of different political dispositions or sexual orientation and so on. Is it not all-consumingly vital that we relate to our children the consequences of the industrialisation of both warfare and racism?
As training teachers, we’re often told stories about the children who laugh, because that’s the only way they have of coping with the traumatic tale that their teachers unfold before them. Having to teach the Holocaust traumatises me and I’m the teacher. Are we right to put our children through this?
I think so. Moreover I think we should not disguise from the children that though some Jews resisted, some collaborated. Most didn’t resist. We should not end the tale with a high note, as though everything would be all right in the end. One teacher today, a woman who had trained at Yad Vashem, argued that we should always leave them with hope.
What hope can there be, after such complete carnage?
As with most of the politically involved in the UK, I’ve been paying close attention to the mayoral elections. I’d have been out campaigning in some London borough or other if I didn’t have so much bureaucracy to wade through from university. Anyway, recent news is that Matt O’Connor, candidate for the English Democrats, has dropped out of the race, citing frustration with the extent to which he was going to get a pasting.
More interesting still have been the comments of “Christian Choice” candidate, Alan Craig. The whole issue of Christianity as a political identity is amply challenged by Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society over on Comment is Free. Sanderson, as part of the NSS probably doesn’t want to take the gloves off, so it falls to us mere mortals to have a much less gracious poke at this Craig chappy and his bag of tricks.
Firstly, he’s a bit of a political lightweight. Having read the websites of the groups who nominated him (1, 2), I’m pretty certain this guy doesn’t actually have any concrete policies. He’s come out in favour of more housing and using London’s £10 bn budget to “support social relationships” but there’s nothing comprehensive. The only thing he really talks about is “Oh noez!!! Muslims!!!111” as regards the Olympic Mega-Mosque.
Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh. He does talk about other things. For example, he’s borrowed the American fundamentalist Christian obsession about “aggressive secularism” and how it is rampaging through our society. At the risk of encroaching upon Godwin’s Law, people like this must have some sort of ingrained psychosis. Before I continue, however, it might be enlightening to have Craig’s words set down.
“The damage that has been done to our capital, the damage that has been done to our society is because of an aggressive, materialistic and selfish secular agenda…Christianity is being written out of the national script,” he said.
“Freedoms that come from our Judeo-Christian heritage are being closed out,” he added, referring to the Sexual Orientation Regulations which make it impossible for Catholic adoption agencies to refuse to place children in same-sex families.
When a member of the audience later challenged Mr Craig on why he was running for mayor on an explicitly Christian ticket, he answered, “Each of the parties has said goodbye to their Christian roots.”
Addressing Christian MPs within the mainstream parties, he said, “I see no evidence that they are standing up for broad Christian values.” (Source)
Apparently Ruth Kelly and the other pro-faith school, anti-scientific research bunch just aren’t extreme enough. I’m so tired of being lectured on the Judeo-Christian heritage rubbish. Britain contains such blinkered twits and we still allow anyone to run for public office?! I’m joking obviously, but still, it should give us pause for thought when measuring parallels between US Christian crusades (e.g.) and our homegrown variety.
I’ll agree with Alan Craig at this point; freedom to discriminate against homosexuals is certainly part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Much like burning witches at the stake, or executing Catholics. It’s a part of our heritage we’re getting rid of. So many of these Christians pick what they like, what’s palatable, as part of “heritage” and the rest is “what bad people did in the name of religion.” It’s blatant hypocrisy.
With all the people out there who make it their business to call the conspiracy theorists on their paranoid claptrap, it’s a wonder no one has denounced Alan Craig. A “secular agenda”? What, does he think we meet up every other week and discuss how best to reduce the influence of religion in the world? Oh wait…we do. Of course we do. If it means we won’t have elected officials trying to ram Jesus down our throats, of course we do.
Overall, we’re winning too. The increasing right wing radicalism of religion in the US, backed by US government funds, Israeli government funds and the funds of corporations across the USA is still a threat. Someone once said if we ever see an American fascist dictatorship, it’ll be wrapped in a flag and carrying a crucifix – and they were right. Yet the fightback is under way, regardless of how disorganised it currently is.
Across the developed world, and the under-developed one, people have been rising up to deal with political issues and coming together across religious divides. From food riots in Haiti to the general strike in Lebanon to the protests at Chinese tyranny in Tibet across the world. These are secular, left wing movements which ethically and morally motivate our young people – freeing them from the stiff dogmas of an outgrown past.
We should be under no illusions. I’ll say this once; the religious often play a progressive role. Is there anything more uplifting than the LGBTQ mass services in Westminster, the home of arch-bigot, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor? Religion is stifling and religious people don’t need to ground their progressive views in it. Like all heritage, there’s a time to let go. For religion that time has long since passed.
Over on Members’ Net, there have been arguments doing the rounds (as they usually do) that the teachers shouldn’t have gone on strike. It’s the same old rubbish. Public sector workers shouldn’t be going on strike. The strike was called without enough negotiation. The strike will cause too much disruption to the public.
It was just the same at Canterbury CLP last year. Several members voiced objection to a motion of support for the CWU strike, on the grounds that it was worded in support of the actual strike, rather than just a vague nod in the direction of the CWU itself. The relevant wording was stricken from the motion and words deploring the strike were inserted.
I wonder how many of the people in question support the decision of Ineos workers to strike? Incidentally a very good collection of comments can be found here: apologies for the shameless immodesty! It’s a relevant question to ask. After all, Ineos is a private firm, it’s not part of the public sector. Arguably, however, it has a greater potential impact than the teachers’ strike.
For the Ineos workers, far from being a selfish act, the workers aren’t merely striking in defence of their own pensions etc, they’re trying to defend generations of future Ineos workers at the Grangemouth plant in Scotland. This is something that, during my long membership of USDAW, I have often wished that union would do, instead of being so utterly inert.
Instead of protecting future employees of Tesco, Sainsbury and the other major supermarkets, USDAW bought much too readily into social partnership. As a result, the supermarkets have been able to decrease overtime from double rate, to one-and-a-half rate, to one-and-a-quarter rate last I heard. I left USDAW almost two years ago, so it could well be worse by now.
A USDAW strike could wreak greater havoc than either of the aforementioned. It’s not a public service, being almost entirely subsumed within massive commercial enterprises. Yet the public totally relies on just those enterprises. Disruption to food supplies, panic buying…the consequences could be severe. I wonder would those opposing public service strikes support them?
The point I am making has, I think, been well and truly guessed at. No few of the people making this arguments are unlikely to support strike action in many instances, except those where it is small and unlikely to succeed.
At the moment, many unions in Western Europe are engaged in or preparing for industrial action (hat tip). Many of these, nurses in Sweden and port workers in France for example , are public sector workers. Why shouldn’t we support them, as much as we support any union which represents workers in the commercial sphere?
Government bureaucrats have little respect for the responsibilities which public servants such as the civil service or teachers bear. Ministers, like any private sector boss, are just as likely to slash wages and pensions if they feel they can get away with it. Cutting public spending makes the government look effective to the middle class constituents it endlessly seems in pursuit of.
In essence, therefore, the public sector is little different to the private sector. Both sectors have departments upon which the country relies heavily. Both sets of bosses are willing to make inroads to terms and conditions if they feel the situation demands it, and neither have any great claim to being free of self-interest in the matter.
Why then should we not support either sector equally whensoever unions manage to summon the courage to go on strike? I think we should, obviously.
One argument is that public taxes run public services, therefore the needs of the public come first. As I’ve argued previously, particularly with regard to the teaching profession, all industrial disputes are motivated by a great deal more than merely money. Money is the surface issue, but discontent is often triggered over a good deal more than that.
Though NASUWT didn’t come out on strike, and no motions proposing strike were mooted at their national conference, it is apparent to anyone with eyes to see that they are grievously unhappy over the workload of teachers. The NUT has been campaigning on this also. It is in the interest of parents to have rested, relaxed, well prepared teachers.
Even for those branches of the government where the public interest in the strike is not so clear, people on strike are so rarely motivated solely by monetary desires. The PCS, for example, which was also on strike on April 24th, are more motivated by the proposed inroads into staff numbers, at least those members whom I have spoken to.
Overworked civil servants, leaned upon by management and performance managed out of their pittance-paying jobs, are hardly in the public interest.
Also, far be it from me to point this out, but just because something is tacitly assumed to be the majority opinion, even where polling data is available, doesn’t mean it is, or that the majority is correct. It means that we, as a labour movement, haven’t done a good enough job selling our case.
That’s difficult when at every opportunity employers use emotional blackmail and the press reprints it ad nauseam. For the teachers, it was attacks on how insensitive we all are about the children. For the Ineos workers, it’s about the British oil supply – the BBC has had six different articles in the last ten days. For the prison officers and police, it was scaremongering over what might happen during their strike / protest.
In some instances there is no real public interest either way, except insofar as the public should support a strong trade union movement because it represents the best safeguard of their own wages and terms and conditions.
At Shelter, the TGWU workers went on strike when their employers literally tore up their contracts and imposed new ones, with little consultation. Even had their been prolonged consultation, I have to admit, the act still deserves unrelenting strike action. These people look after the homeless. They damn well deserve a decent wage to do so.
I’m sick and tired of listening to the nay sayers. They remind me of Martin Niemoller’s poem about dark forces coming for different groups, and the narrator not speaking up because it wasn’t his group. It’s high time we had a bit of solidarity.
For example, the teaching unions all expressed their support for the Teaching Assistants. Had I had my way, the government would have repealed legislation against secondary strike action and the teachers would have come out in support of TA salary rises.
So far as I’m concerned, that’s the sort of thing we want to see more of. The workers I’ve spoken to on picket lines are less often motivated by private concerns about money (though some are and should be!) and more concerned with what the government is doing to their field of expertise.
Even were the FBU not trying to stave off government proposals designed to undermine the union membership base, their campaign for £30k per annum was entirely justified. It’s not about the money, it’s the principle of the thing. Inequality is running rampant. Despite not getting it, those firemen found plenty of time to donate time and money to other causes, in support of other workers.
It seems that, according to the right wing view, greed is good so long as it isn’t expressed by a union in collective defence of its members!
Revisiting the battles of the 1980’s is important for the Labour left. It is vital to understand where we, as a group loosely allied around various policies and tactics, went wrong and where we were right. I’ve been indulging in that this week, through an excellent book entitled “Ken: The ups and downs of Ken Livingstone.” It is currently available in Waterstones for £3 less than the cover price of £15.99 and I heartily recommend picking up a copy, unless you have access to bookshops with a soul, in which case, buy it there.
The book itself is exceptionally good at debunking a lot of the accusations of the press during the later 1970’s and earl 1980’s against Ken Livingstone and the other prominent hard left Labourites. For that reason alone, it is a worthy book; it provides some excellent referencing to everything from interviews and newspaper articles of the day in defence of the points it makes.
A real strength is that the author is refreshingly partisan and doesn’t attempt to hide it. It reads like an account one would expect from the old ‘soft left’ of the Party and makes no apology for it. The Trotskyists of the tale are reviled as cuckolds, the people who stand up to Ken are admired for their bravado and the personality and foibles of many people across the political spectrum are examined with a keen eye.
Though the political detractors of Marxism have often accused us of being narrow minded, I genuinely do like a rollicking partisan tale – this absolutely fits the bill. It has an engaging writing style and though one might disagree with some of the points expressed, they form an excellent historical record of the actions of the left and right of the party, from Golding to Benn, equally despicable on occasion.
It must be said, the author’s knowledge of Trotskyism as an ideology is a weakness and this is displayed at various points, particularly early on in the book when discussing some of the views of Lenin and Trotsky on what the role of British revolutionaries should be. This is no more than a minor irritation however and didn’t impinge upon my enjoyment.
As is my wont, I don’t aim to write a standard book review. For two book reviews, each of which prove the author, Andrew Hosken, correct is his assertions of press tendentiousness, try the Times and Spectator. I prefer to actually engage with some of the themes evident in the book. The most basic of these is “Who belongs within the Labour Party?”
Which road to socialism?
Andrew Hosken defines the “hard left” core of parliamentary socialists, who want drastic reforms but are in essence prepared to work within existing structures. In Hosken’s writing, this is deliberately distinct from the “far left” of revolutionary groups working within the Labour Party and trying to foment a leftward shift.
Portrayed as existing inside the Labour Party solely to use it as a Trojan Hose, the far left are the muck stirrers of the story. Though it is never said outright, by implication I think Hosken would rather the far left weren’t part of the Labour Party and that he views it as dishonest for them to be so. This impression is reinforced by the obvious contempt of the author for such groups.
Contemptible though many of them have indeed been, I have always thought the Trotskyist sects to be an integral part of the Labour movement. Indeed, in some respects they form the backbone of the left. For example, opportunist though the SWP might be, and self-defeating as its policies and politics might be, they still form a valuable activist core around which large movements still occasionally grow up.
If one is to have an opinion that certain groups should stand outside the Party, then one really has to be able to define what groups should be inside the Party. No such consensus exists. If only people who agreed with the constitution and policies of the Party were members, membership levels would be much smaller than they are now and very few of those remaining would be activists in any sense.
Divisions between the parliamentary road to socialism and a revolutionary one seem much clearer. Yet it is only a short step for people to assume revolutionary views, despite otherwise normal lives. Once you conclude that reform is not going to work, you have two choices; to fight for it, or to concede to the other side. As I do not concede that parliamentary democracy can properly represent the interest of those most in need of change, then that concession an act of cowardice.
This forms the basis for my ultimately revolutionary socialist views. Yet support for beneficial reform from above is a plank in any socialistic analysis, until such times as the instruments of proletarian democracy are developed enough to wrest control of the administration of society, abolishing the influence of capital. That support puts me firmly in the Labour camp.
It has always been my view that a revolution, or a conquest of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions by the left, can only be engineered if there is substantial popular support amongst the Party members on the ground, tied to a willingness to fight long and hard to convince working people that we’re on their side.
Even Trotskyism is a democratic movement, whatever bureaucratic distortions the sects impose upon themselves in each of their guises. A handful of Trotskyist activists would not have effected such huge change in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s without much deeper levels of support than Hosken seems to be willing to credit them with.
A Popular Basis for Trotskyism in the 1980s?
Hosken has dug up an excellent quotation which shows what some people thought the basis for the Trotskyist and hard left rise to prominence and power was.
“The organisation of the Labour Party is such that it is only two easy for fringe groups and extremists to move in. Like many trade unions, it has a heirarchical structure which means there are lots of committees and lots of meetings.
“Before the war, people were willing to go to meetings – they were a social event and possible an entertainment as well. In these days of television some people simply won’t turn out.
“As a result, many meetings are badly attended and can easily be dominated by a handful of activists who vote themselves into positions of authority. Thus small and unrepresentative groups from the far left can easily move in.”
These were the thoughts of Bill Montgomery, a political columnist for the Willesden and Brent Chronicle, published in February of 1981. Indeed, this thinking is taken further elsewhere in the book, where it is suggested that with each move left, people grew alienated from the party and this made the next successive move left even easier.
Undeniably we should concede some truth to these arguments. In fact, in a different context, I’ve made similar arguments myself. I said at one point:
“At least I can go along to a Labour branch meeting and get normal conversation from people. The school teachers, the civil servants…workers generally are more likely to attend Labour gatherings than anything remotely associated with the anoraks and misfits who seem to characterise the far left.”
Even still, the level of popular participation in Labour Party politics in the 1970’s and 1980’s was higher than it is today, and many times higher than in the sects now that they’ve split from Labour. The anoraks of the far left were exceptionally single minded, but evidently there was a great deal of support behind them, despite their oddities.
How completely the right of the party was out-manoeuvred by the left in choosing Livingstone as leader of the Greater London Council demonstrates the extent to which the left could rely on organised activists across London. This was a cycle repeated in many different areas besides London too – the most well known being Militant and Liverpool.
What allowed popular participation to shine through in these instances was the leadership of the Party fighting its own battles against Tony Benn and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. The bureaucrats didn’t intervene to order candidates off the short list on whatever pretext because it might have lost them their job, such was the climate seemingly.
Regardless, it would be pointless to deny that bureaucratic tricks were played by the Trotskyists and the hard left. One example was the signing up of a dozen Asian members, who could barely speak English, in Brent East on the night of the selection of election candidates, solely for the purpose of outnumbering the right.
The right were no different though, such as Jim Callaghan’s early resignation as leader deliberately that CLPs wouldn’t get a say in his replacement. Under Wilson, there was determined group in the PLP, to the right of the party, who were thought to be part of a “Wilson Must Go” group which also had people like Cecil King on board.
Those failing to convincingly argue that the far and hard lefts were just disjointed, unrepresentative “political obsessives” often retreated to an even more common attack, one that has been around forever:
“Many of these new activists are young, middle class lefties, including more than a sprinkling of teachers…There is a noticeable lack of those ordinary working people of whom [the left] speak often and long.”
This was a comment from the same reporter. Even were the accusations about well-meaning middle class do-gooders true, one wonders about the extent to which, in the 1980’s, with unemployment going skyward, ordinary working people could find the time to take an interest in politics. Such accusations weren’t true of course.
Set between the titanic events of the ’79 Winter of Discontent and the ’84 Miners’ Strike, it is easy to forget that the period 1980-1983 involved plenty of industrial disputes to politicise workers. Miners, electricians, all sorts of workers were in fact connected to the battles sweeping the Labour Party. Arthur Scargill himself was elected in 1982.
For Labour, especially today, popular participation can receive knocks from excessive introspection and infighting – but more often it receives knocks from leadership capitulations to the right wing of the Party. Jim Callaghan’s government was defeated precisely because it attempted to implement a more efficient method of capitalism, under which attacks had to be made on workers’ terms and conditions.
Of course those same workers weren’t going to return a Labour government to power, unless it demonstrated changes. That change was what Tony Benn and others sought to provide, even if they weren’t particularly radical compared to revolutionary socialist demands. The connection between workers and the Labour Party in the 1980’s was strong – certainly stronger than it is today.
The Decline and Fall of the Left
Where I think the hard and far left parted company with their popular support was in tactics. The attitude displayed and some of the policies adopted by the groups on the hard and far left of the party were ill-chosen, to say the least. For example, Ken Livingstone’s support for the IRA, despite helping him win his parliamentary seat, probably had a role in neutering public response to Thatcher’s attack on the GLC.
In addition, choosing people for public office who were ideologically sound but were not up to the task was another bad idea. Certainly if the wrong person was chosen, on the basis of their politics, that person could have held a socialist agenda hostage by threatening to resign from their high profile position. Even still, compromise should not be a bad word for revolutionary socialists.
Had the GLC accepted usual council procedures of validation for their Fares Fair initiative, for example, they might have been less susceptible to attack through the courts. The success of this initiative would have meant greater public support, which was necessary if County Hall really was to be used to rally all opposition to Thatcher’s government and to protect working people from the monetarist onslaught.
Ultimately, it was a lack of co-ordinated strategy which defeated the left. Thatcher’s government dropped massively in popularity and inspired fierce and unflinching opposition after it’s election. The Labour Party benefitted through the GLC elections and other council elections until a concerted media campaign began to demonise once and for all the left of the party.
Unable (or unwilling) to retaliate by extra-legal means, to demonstrate the firmness of their opposition to Thatcher and to rally people to their banner, that left crumpled and by 1987 was, as Hosken comments, “in full flight.” No General Strike, disjointed and mostly gesture-based support for the Miners, the selfishness of Derek Hatton and Militant in Liverpool. It was tactical mistakes which ensured Labour’s defeat.
Whether or not Thatcher’s government had won the 1983 election, and we cannot discount the 1982 “Falklands effect,” parliamentary power should have been rendered worthless by the higher court of workers in action. Michael Foot is today often thought of as the standard bearer of the leftward assault on the Party. In fact he was a weak leader chosen not by the Left but by those in the centre who feared someone who might actually grip the bull by the horns and act decisively.
The “longest suicide in history” eulogy of the 1983 manifesto, though pithy, doesn’t begin to get to the bottom of the issues at stake and the forces at work in Labour during the 1980’s. All too often in fact, the 1983 defeat is used as an excuse by Party hacks to suggest that Labour cannot survive with a serious left-wing agenda. As a purely electoral influence, indubitably that is the case.
Yet Labour was not founded purely on an electoral basis. A swing to the left alienated much of the PLP who then jumped ship, backed by the media at every single turn, because this was the best way, so it was thought, to break the organised left wing of the Labour Party. Just how far Capital conspired in this is amply evidenced by Hosken’s book. This protracted drift to the right is having much more dangerous effects.
For the first time ever, Labour is in danger of being outflanked to the left – by the Liberal Democrats of all people. It is not a serious danger, because the Lib-Dems so obviously disdain to have relations with the organised working class. It should be pointed out nevertheless that with Jack Straw’s attitude to the Unions, the leadership places the Party in the very real danger of simply abandoning all Labourism and becoming a second incarnation of the old Liberal Party.
At the first sign of protracted class struggle, this attitude could genuinely destroy the Labour Party, much as it destroyed that Liberal Party.
Also, prolonged reliance on media-driven campaigns and sound-bite seeking policies are showing their strain after eleven years of Labour government, and it has little to do with Gordon Brown’s poor showmanship. Certain policies of Labour which have a direct material effect on workers are pushing us towards electoral defeat. This is exacerbating the estrangement between union rank and file and Labour.
The full effects of some policies pioneered by Labour might not be felt for several years to come, though others, such as the introduction of UnitedHealth and other US consortia into the NHS are being fought right now. At any rate, Labour has spent the last 11 years undermining the very reason so many people voted to get rid of the Tories. Now that the Tories seem finally to have reorganised, Labour is once again in trouble.
In opposition, Labour will have need of the very groups it has worked to undermine – the railway workers, the teachers and lecturers, the fire brigades, the civil service, each organised in their Unions. In opposition, neutered as much by labour laws as by a sedentary leadership, workers in these and all unions will have little protection against a Conservative government – but fear is unlikely to motivate people to take a positive view of Labour, who have done little to win workers’ trust.
Six years from now, we may be re-elected again as the lesser of two evils, the country having experienced David Cameron’s loving policies. Power of itself is solving little. It simply leaves the country stuck in a rut. It reinforces that old adage about how political parties don’t win elections, governments lose them. That is one adage which Labour can avoid repeating – but only with determined opposition to right wing policies. Opposition we’re unlikely to show without drastic change.
Ken Livingstone’s legacy is to demonstrate both tactical successes and tactical failures which we must learn from. The forces of the left must be marshalled at every point – in local government, in the national assemblies and in the London assembly as well as in trade unions and minority political parties.
The mood to fight may arise from people out of disgust at Tory policy should we lose the election, or our own policy should we win – either way the Left needs to prepare itself for opposition and for educating and deepening that disgust. Such an organised movement is the only way to break political deadlock for Labour and to overcome the defeats of the 1980’s.
Far from 1983 representing the rejection of socialist policies by the electorate, 1983 represented the failure of Labour to actually stand up and fight. To defeat post-Thatcherite politics, we must return to pre-Thatcherite politics, but we must be better at it. Compromising where necessary to build a fledgling movement, we should be prepared to embrace wider industrial disruption – and no longer can we contemplate that in national isolation.
The time for a greater internationalism is now. Our left movement must link up decisively with the French against Sarkozy, perhaps by striking in support of French workers, to make sure they are not scabbed upon. New Labour is currently writing its own obituary, whether or not it is finished at the next election. Our goal, collectively, must be to unite marchers on the street with workers on strike and link things like environmentalism very firmly to the evils of capitalism. And we can do it.
If the left in the 1980’s put minority rights very firmly on the agenda, even at the moment of their defeat, then we should return there, especially where those rights are fights over labour issues also. Most of all, however, we need to stop being afraid of compromise. My base instinct is to fight to the last drop, but if we’re to succeed in building a movement that can do that, then between ourselves as socialists, we must have compromise and we must have honesty.
The time has come to echo Trotsky. “Labour, take the power!”