Home > Labour Party News > Perspectives on 1994-1997: Left failures?

Perspectives on 1994-1997: Left failures?

The period prior to the 1997 elections looks distant, from the current perspective of the Labour Party. Copies of Will Hutton’s bullish book, The State We’re In, now forlornly grace charity shop shelves. The rhetoric of Blair, which then seemed to rout all before it, is now mockingly mirrored in the address of equally empty hair-do, David Cameron. Only the polls give some cause for comfort; the Labour Party was scoring in the 50% region more often than not pre-1997. Cameron’s Tories have thus still not sealed the deal with the electorate, despite an ailing government.

Yet, if we are not to repeat the same mistakes, the period of reform of the Party from 1981-1997 is a crucial area for investigation and lesson-taking, as at least one other blogger recognises. Paul searches for the causes of a failed Labour government and finds them in the choice of ‘the Left’ not to hold the feet of the government to the fire, partly out of delight that an 18 year wildnerness that encompassed the Thatcher Years had ended. Rather than agency and wilful treason, Paul sees structure, though added to which is the failed agency of activists – who didn’t act when perhaps they should have. I wish to suggest a difference of nuance.

That discussion revolves around where ‘we’, the activists, the members of a political party, went wrong. It assumes that ‘we’ want some accountability between the membership of the Labour Party and its leadership, and that the possibility is open within the structures of membership to achieve that accountability. The fault for its absence, would therefore be ours. However I don’t think that some of these premises hold true, and moreover I think the subject is really quite complex when we start considering things like the composition and goals of the Party membership, which are not uniform, despite the pretences of the Left to be the entirety of the grassroots.

We should consider, for example, that in the period 1994-1997, a hundred thousand people joined the Labour Party. Who were they? I have little useful statistical information to hand beyond a few recent books on Labour Party history. New Labour history and whatever I can cull from the internet and I do not know that the research exists – but I would guess that the ‘progressive alliance’ built up by New Labour triangulation recruited altogether different types of members to Labour, who neither knew nor cared for what the Labour Party used to be, or what the socialist Left expected it to be. They were not working class nor would they understand what that was if asked.

I frankly admit that my opinions on this are probably coloured by my experience at Oxford, where a large proportion of the members of the Labour Club were timeservers and careerists. From social to social, the conversations being held with individuals about every political subject were just depressing by how completely they revealed the chasm between the embryonic masters and fixers of the Party and ‘real life’, i.e. the genuinely hard time of it the rest of us have in finding a job and keeping food on the table. The culmination of this was when one member told me he’d rather be a Conservative than a Trotskyite.

Think that through for a moment. As politically disagreeable as we might find some Trotskyites, on the other hand, many of them live lives of ascetic poverty to devote themselves to a fight for wages, services and generally a better deal for working people. Far from the energetic posers of the student campus, most of the Trotskyites I have known are singularly dedicated. This effect is only lessened because, against the backdrop of capitalist hegemony and working class depoliticization, Trotskyites look like they are trying to use the working class to their own advantage, rather than simply acting as a catalyst for otherwise inchoate demands that arise from present social relations.

Compare that to what the Conservative Party is composed of and stands for.

Whether or not that is actually the case that such people began to arrive in the Party in greater numbers, I can’t prove or disprove. What I do know is that Labour’s vote in 1997 increased radically its support from the top of the demographics tables. Labour had won elections in the past without doing that. If we assume that the change in tone even between Smith and Blair attracted people who weren’t socialists-of-necessity (as one tends to find the working class) then we shouldn’t be talking about Left failures, more Right successes. The battles over Clause IV (with 90% CLP assent to the change, and 65% of members in support) and the Union bloc vote seem to reinforce this.

The Left did its best with the materials to hand. Every Right success, however, disillusioned the Left and caused their capitulation or their fall away from politics proper. Not to say that the Left hasn’t made mistakes; whilst maintaining some semblance of national organisation and national strategy is important, the Left relied on its high-profile figures altogether too much, and grew to love talking to itself rather than using a national network of activists to build and reinforce local networks, perhaps winning the odd local fight and consolidating itself. Yet to reap strength from any solid strategy takes time, which works in favour of the other side.

Even a Left that had a solid blood-and-toil strategy in place would not have been able to get rid of Labour’s leader, whose alliance with business secured the high profile endorsements of the News of the World and the Sun and secured access to a big tranche of funds with which to fight the election. There’s also the issue that Labour could probably have run Genghis Khan against John Major’s Conservatives and still pulled off an overall majority in the House of Commons in 1997. However even the very disunity of the Tories was in part attributable to depoliticization. Without Communism or even the Trades Unions around which to gather, the Tories had internal differences to fight out.

As the Left had gathered strength, it would have changed the objective condition of depoliticization, in turn re-uniting the Tories, not to mention stressing once more the relationship between working class Labour members and activists and the PLP. Meanwhile, in this alternative timeline, Tony would still have been pressing onwards – though the 12 years in government may have been compressed into five or six, with the Tories sorting themselves out and business and the media rediscovering their natural affinity with that Party. My basic point is, by the mid-90s, whatever Labour members and activists did, we couldn’t have avoided this Labour government.

It existed in the space where angry popular disaffection with the Conservatives met a popular retreat from engagement with politics at everything bar the most facile of levels. Our mistake at that point wasn’t in holding Tony et al to the basic ethos and promise of the Labour movement, but in seeing them as any different from the Conservatives in the general thrust of their attitudes to business, to popular participation in government and to the welfare services which we expect that the State will provide. Whatever the strains placed on people when in situ, in high positions of State, by the security services or the global financial system, it was never the goal of Tony Blair and his coterie to enact socialist changes.

Anyone paying attention will have noted that in opposition, Blair and Brown were dead set against ID cards, decried Tory attacks on civil liberties and so forth. We know how that turned out. Blair in his maiden speech made an impassioned plea against tax relief for the wealthy, and against multinational companies who would use the north of England for as long as suited them, before departing to pastures greener. Yet his government presided over the non-dom scandal and cuts and loopholes that allowed the wealthy to escape taxation, though the poor and middling paid it through the nose.

By 1997, having courted Rupert Murdoch and others, it was a different ball game from 1983. Our mistake was not in holding the government to its promises; having scaled down its promises to five simple issues which even most Conservatives would be for (*), it kept every one. Our mistake was in seeing the new government as a vehicle of change. Having believed in it, only to be rudely brought down to earth once more, many members of the Party wandered off – both from Left and Right, as the current state of the Labour Party attests. All of this, which is so much surmise, begets another question then.

Having established that we haven’t held the Party leadership to account, and that Labour can trudge along quite merrily even while the most class conscious battalions of the movement are dead-set against the leadership, we really need to ask, is it possible to hold our leaders to account? This is a question I’ll be searching for answers to over the remaining five chapters of Paul’s own “What is to be done?”

(*) Cut class sizes for infants, speed legal proceedings against young offenders, reduce NHS waiting lists, maintain low inflation and move 250,000 young people from welfare to work. Source: Andrew Thorpe, A History of the British Labour Party, Second Edition, p230.

Categories: Labour Party News
  1. Duncan
    July 12, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    An interesting analysis. As someone active on the left in the period you are focusing on, I think we do hold partial responsibility for our failures; I think we also have to recommend that ‘the other side’ fought very well.

    On the new members, by the way, it would be interesting to check it statistically, but I would suspect that the members we have lost since ’97 correlate quite closely to those we gained in those few years beforehand. Of course, we have also lost lots of disillusioned socialists; but we lost a lot more people who joined at a disco and never had any great interest in party membership or activism (whether class conscious or not). There were hundreds of these ‘regeneration’ events that were very good for short-term recruitment.

    The leadership and the party machine were entirely as one from about 1994/5 onwards and they were ruthlessly efficient in crushing anything organised against them. This, combined with a timidity born of an understandable miscomprehension of quite how inevitable the ’97 victory was, accounted for the extent of our marginalisation. Alongside some odd sectarianism and misunderstanding of the politics of certain individuals. (An example of this would be the ’94 leadership election where I supported Ken Livingstone – until he was unable to secure sufficient nominations – and was criticised strongly by AWL for threatening to split the left vote… for John Prescott!)

    The test case was the Clause IV debate and it set the tone for much of what was to follow. By saying there was an open discussion and debate, we were quickly wrong-footed. Admirable, well-meaning party activists who didn’t view this as a totemic part of destroying the role for socialism in the party thought the opportunity to discuss our aims and objectives was a boon, and thought those who clung to antiquated words from yesteryear were dinosaurs. The press, still in thrall to Blair, would ignore the great round of speeches for Clause IV that the likes of Alan Simpson were doing, and present our side as if we began and ended with Arthur Scargill: it was simply the Old against the New. The Old lost, took its bat and ball home and formed a new party.

    When you add to that the level of micromanagement of every vote taken on Clause IV, whether at national conferences or local discussions, this was control freakery at its most effective. (Everyone’s favourite Mr. Jon Cruddas proudly ‘delivered’ the votes for the leadership at the Young Labour conference that year for example; that delivery involved barring delegations from the NUM and the RMT and left Labour Clubs like my own at York… what a champion of party and union democracy…)

    We got some of our tactics wrong, certainly, but we had nothing like the machine they had. And as ’97 drew closer, they had a bigger weapon, and one which we have never stopped fearing. ‘The Left lost us it and let the Tories in’.

  2. Duncan
    July 12, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    That should have been ‘recognise’ not ‘recommend’ in the first para by the way. (Proof read Hall!)

  3. July 12, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    I recently bought a copy of Hutton’s magnum opus from a charity shop, actually. Worth reading in some parts for its analysis of what’s wrong, but little on what’s right. He actually criticizes Blair for not being radical enough, which suggests more than naivety…

    We can see the same thing happening with Obama in the US. On both sides of the Atlantic, the capitalists have worked out how to prevent workers’ anger bringing a pro-worker leadership to power – offer up something messianic.

    Neither Obama or Blair had much substance during their campaigns (hope, change, etc.) and as Duncan points out, what often holds people back is that if in the media the chosen ones are given little criticism, you risk damaging the party as a whole by speaking out or asking awkward questions.

    It strikes me that Cameron is having a problem with the UK’s doting population – so many people have seen his shtick before with Blair and can’t forget where it’s led. When I was growing up under the Tories we learnt from our family and community the necessity of kicking them out, of voting Labour. New Labour’s gleeful embrace of neoliberalism has meant that the Party will find it harder to appeal amongst traditionally supportive groups – even Cabinet members are unconvinced Brown’s rhetoric on Tory cuts will salvage a minority government after the general election.

    A lot of Labour activists forget the essential difference between the party that brought in the NHS and the party that brought us a minimum wage. Labour then was a party led by people committed to reforms out of belief – now we have a party that when it carries out progressive measures its out of necessity, like nationalising the east coast rail route.

    With regards Cruddas, I feel we can forgive the past without forgetting it. The reason he continues to subordinate his stated beliefs to party loyalty is because he lacks confidence in his own ability to challenge the leadership – he says Labour should be bold, but finds it difficult to act on this. Consider, he was very good defending the Lindsay strikers in the media – pointing out the issue was neoliberal EU laws. But this was reactive rather than proactive.

  4. July 12, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    Charlie, on the subject of Jon Cruddas, I don’t see your reasoning. You say that ‘the reason he continues to subordinate his stated beliefs to party loyalty is because he lacks confidence in his own ability to change the leadership’…except that you are just guessing.

    I’ve seen and commented on speeches of Cruddas which read like a Blairite manifesto – a lot of hot air with a sidehelping of windbaggery. Yet what has Cruddas done? He’s not a Trotskyite advocating that we’re in a period where the minimum programme will serve us more effectively, he’s a career politician who built that career off the back of a Party machine which viscerally hates dissent. The ‘minimum programme’ (if what Cruddas wants even amounts to such) and pseudo-Gramscian babble with which you seem to rejoice in couching his policy is no different to the game Brown and Blair played with the whole electorate prior to 1997.

    He’s not going to save the Left; if he ever becomes leader, he won’t even be part of the Left. It is worrying that so many Leftists have talked themselves into thinking of Cruddas as anything other than what he actually is – and what he doesn’t mind appearing to be when not speaking to Left activists – Blair Mk II.

  5. July 12, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    Duncan, on the subject of members I would guess you are right – although we climbed from 305,000 to 405,000 in that period and I’ve seen estimates as low as 100,000, more regularly about 200,000 for our present state of affairs. We may have lost all the people who joined in the good times, but we’ve also lost a damn sight more besides.

  6. July 12, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Thanks for this productive engagement, Dave.

    In my own post there are certainly some rough edges, both because it’s one of those that have been hanging around for a while, getting a bit stale, so I just got it battered out on the train to get it out of the way. As you note, the more substantive issues of what we do are still to come, but I felt a where we’ve come from post was needed first (and chapter 3 will be another one). As such, and as part of a series, it falls between two stools – between rigour in analysis and the ‘call to arms’ I’m seeking to make.

    Given this, the structure-agency aspect is, as you’ve seen, somewhat underdeveloped, and you’re right to pick up that the structural explanation I seek to give for why the government has failed is actually agential in its assessment of collective left failure, and would benefit from the analysis you then provide of the structural constraints the left itself suffered. This though risks providing an excuse for the left, on the basis that the powers were against them, and is not in keeping with the call to arms, and the call not to forget how we got it wrong 15 years ago (in fact I was abroad, but I’ll stay with the collective ‘we’).

    Yes, certainly the cards were stacked against the left, but I think Duncan’s agential assessment of how they were stacked is useful, not least re: chapter 4 on how we might ‘unstack’ them.

    As regards the membership type and numbers, I think both you and Duncan are again right. The last in the series of three studies of membership in fact takes as its title ‘the transformation’ of the Labour membership in the early/mid 90s. However, as Duncan suggests, many of these treated Labour membership as a disco, and left when the bright lights came on. I think what the study fails to see that the ‘real’ membership’s core values and beliefs remained pretty constant, though their profile and way of expressing it was suppressed.

    Yes, some of them voted for Clause IV removal because they were hoodwinked into thinking a more open debate had emerged (or else they just didn’t vote), but the vote was swayed by large numbers of newer members then along for the ride, especially in constituencies like Oxford, where indeed the brash wannabbees saw their chance to shine in NL, irrespective of any core beleifs they might have had, or not.

    I’m interested that you didn’t feel the need to review in depth my key argument that Labour is still the place to be to effect change from the left, as opposed say to the Socialist Party, given the ‘in or out’ of Labour arguments that have raged at TCF. Perhaps you’re just a bit fed up with the repetition?.

  7. July 12, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Dave, I’m not guessing about Cruddas – he says he doesn’t want to be leader, he says he doesn’t have the ability or interest in it. As you say, he’s a career politician. But not at all like Blair – who had no ability when it came to theory.

    Paul, one problem with Labour revival as a party for working people is as I said in my comment above “New Labour’s gleeful embrace of neoliberalism has meant that the Party will find it harder to appeal amongst traditionally supportive groups”. You mention the Greens as a rival for leftwing support – though not a vocally socialist or working class party the democratic nature of policy-making & pro-worker policies make it that much easier to endorse.

  8. July 12, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Charlie, I haven’t seen any ability in regards Cruddas and theory – and I’ve read his doctoral thesis, or at least chunks of it. And you are guessing because, like any career politician, Cruddas can make all the pronouncement he likes, but our default state should be distrust of anything that comes out of his mouth.

    Paul; your key argument I couldn’t have done justice to. When it comes up here, I rarely give a categorical opinion as it is still something I’m divided upon myself. I suspect it is something we’ll revisit again in the future – and perhaps Chapters 2 through 6 will provide the occasion.

    As a point of general note, isn’t there a Labour History Group? Perhaps we should petition them for research on an issue like the statistical ones we have been discussing.

  1. July 15, 2009 at 6:21 pm
  2. July 22, 2009 at 3:16 pm
  3. July 23, 2009 at 1:16 pm
  4. August 1, 2009 at 10:08 am

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