Home > Book Reviews, Dave's Favourites, General Politics, Labour Party News, Trade Unions > Labour, take the power! A look at Red Ken and the 1980’s

Labour, take the power! A look at Red Ken and the 1980’s

Ken LivingstoneRevisiting 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.

Whither Labour?
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!”

  1. April 27, 2008 at 12:03 am

    Dave, I agree with almost everything you say here, save for your attitudes on Trotskyism.

    I’ve just read a fabian tract entitled ‘the Labour Party and the new left’, which is the most confused piece of writing I have read for some time; it really doesn’t get trotskyism, it seems only to understand half shades of reality.

    Some of the stuff you’ve talked about it this post I have also mentioned in my most recent.

    I especially agree with your points about why Labour itself needs a left. Take a look at Wendy Alexander floundering away, as she is constantly out-lefted by the SNP…

  2. April 27, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Wow, I found this quite fascinating. My experiences with people who were actually involved with Labour during that time period are negligible, to say the least, and confined only to members of the Ted Grant sect. From them, it sounds as if their efforts were heroic and of great magnitude? I would be interested in hearing more about this from someone outside their camp. Please enlighten me, good sir!

  3. April 27, 2008 at 8:07 am

    Tom, why do you disagree with my points about Trotskyism, out of curiosity? I don’t think anything I’ve said is particularly controversial. I mean, I’m a little biased because I moved amongst Trotskyists before I moved about Labour. Even still, these people are honest and hard working – and in the final analysis may be necessary as a catalyst to change our society.

    Jonesy, for the sake of honesty, let me try and lay out some of what I can claim I “know.”

    I have second-hand knowledge of the period. Some of it comes from Ted Grant’s former comrades in Militant, who went on to join the Socialist Party, which I was a member of a few years before I joined Labour. I also have read a lot of material – both of Ted Grant’s books, for example, but also AWL material on the struggle in Liverpool.

    On the other side of the debate, I’ve read the book “Hammer of the Left” which is probably the most scurrilous attack on the left of Labour ever written by a Party member. Finally I have read bits and pieces of different news articles from the time.

    I think that the efforts of people during this time period were heroic. A certain layer of people may have been drifting away from Labour, but on the other hand, the early 1980’s was a period of intense interest in the Leftist project. It mobilised many people from layers whose political engagement we take for granted.

    That movement could have been more – that it wasn’t more is not about heroic defeats or inward betrayals (though there were some of those too) but about tactical mistakes as I’ve tried to outline. For example, since you bring up Ted Grant, the Militant Tendency had Thatcher’s government scared – but in Liverpool it failed to follow through and set an illegal rate in defiance of Thatcher’s new weapon against the left, the Rates Act.

    I’m happy to try and answer questions if that’s not what you were driving at.

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