There’s a glorious and comforting myth doing the rounds on the left. It’s like warm milk and honey to those who like their politics black and white, with little or no space for any grey. It goes a bit like this: the Labour left offered no opposition to Blairism North and South of the Border. In fact, those laughable people who dare call themselves socialists in the Labour Party have simply been apologists for the anti-working class politics of New Labour and its continuation as “austerity lite” under Ed Miliband. It’s only by the widespread spreading of this muck that is been possible to lump Labour members and supporters under the headline grabber ‘Red Tories’, with no distinction between socialists in the party and New Labour. It’s a comforting thought for many of those making the break with Labour, because it draws a clear party line between those on the right side of the fence and those on the wrong side. Evil must be punished and good will prevail. But it’s simplistic bullshit, actually.
Not only has there always been a vocal minority in the party which attempted to fight New Labourism from its very origins, but many of that group (who coalesced around Tribune, the Socialist Campaign Group initially, and later, the Campaign for Socialism in Scotland, the LRC and Welsh Labour Grassroots) were there at the coal face well before the broader left – and tried to warn against the Blair revolution while others in the party were being seduced by the charmer himself and the idea that after a succession of electoral disasters, there really was no alternative. The ‘Campaign Group’ left begged to differ – but it faced an uphill struggle to convince those around them. This group has been depleted by the fall out and demoralisation in the wake of Benn’s defeat in the deputy leadership election of 1981; the 1983 General Election defeat; the defeat and betrayal of the Miners during the strike of 1984-85; the abolition of the GLC; the near constant attacks on the left during the Kinnock era and had witnessed at close quarters the accession of Blair – who announced himself as the gravedigger of the left by stripping the party of Clause IV in 1995. At this point, many simply had had enough. Some socialists – mainly from the activist left of the party – departed to start a new venture, the Socialist Alliance, while others stayed in to fight another day.
What’s clear from this little potted history, though, is that the left in the party had taken a battering. It felt like a defeat, if not a final one. How did it happen? What were the root causes of the succession of wounds inflicted from the mid-80’s onwards? It certainly wasn’t about waving the white flag. There was no surrender, but the left voice was getting submerged, quieter year by year. What really inflicted the damage on the left wasn’t “losing the argument” but bureaucratic manoeuvre. The Blairites learnt very quickly that it wasn’t about winning the ideological battle, but about capturing the party machine – as a precursor to winning the Parliamentary party.
Strategically those early New Labourites were very astute – and they understood that if you were genuinely going to remove the party from its roots, you needed to take away the voice of the ordinary party member. That was the real Blair revolution, right there. In a series of anti-democratic changes to the way the party debates and reached decisions, including turning the party conference into a showcase for the leadership, the apparatchiks of New Labour seized control of the party machine. Well funded and organised, it wasn’t long before they started the task of winning the Parliamentary party. Like dominos, selection after selection went to bright young Blairites. CLP’s became, in many cases, mere vehicles for New Labour branded careers – and old Labourites fled from local parties as they became increasingly alienated. This didn’t always manifest itself in tearing up the party card, but the effect was the same as former “troublemakers” went to ground.
Blair’s was a classic ‘top down’ revolution, one which was premised on silencing and marginalising dissent. On those terms, it couldn’t have been more successful. The fact that it didn’t trigger a ‘bottom up’ revolution in return is hardly surprising, considering the history outlined above. Grassroots resistance isn’t something that can be conjured out of thin air – and the demoralisation left by those defeats was hardly confined to the Labour left. Many a left project withered in the vine at this time, including the Socialist Alliance. However, it would be wrong to say that the Labour left simply gave in. It’s a forgotten footnote in history that 139 Labour MPs voted against the War in Iraq. Not long afterwards, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was set up specifically to address the crisis of representation of the left in the party. What was missing, though, were the much larger numbers of unaffiliated socialists in the party and the unions, beyond that activist core. They were the ones most affected by the disillusion which set in with the onslaught of Blairism. So there was always a vociferous and committed leftwing, it just didn’t have the wider base in the party that it needed to really be heard. That’s where we’ve been stuck for nearly two decades.
Now, we can debate the finer details of strategy, of what went wrong and the Labour left ended up in such a precarious position, but I don’t think that is what the “Red Tories” trope is all about. It too wants to silence debate, to dispel complexity and bury the Labour left once and for all. The idea that there might be several thousand socialists in the Labour Party still is dismissed quickly and ruthlessly, because to admit that would be to acknowledge an alternative strategy. At the extreme, the ‘Red Tory’ brigade berate those socialists on the left of the Labour Party as “left cover” for the leadership’s neoliberalism. It’s not too far off the old, discredited British Communist line during the ‘Class Against Class’ period , which castigated the left of Labour as “social fascists”. That had to be abandoned as the threat of real fascism in the shape of the Nazis focused the left’s minds. And this is the point.
People will no doubt say, “What’s the big deal about a few lefties slinging insults about? Surely you can understand the anger?”. In some senses that is right. Not only do we, as socialists in the Party, understand the anger, we share it. It’s been an everyday reality for us for over two decades – and often we’ve been there, on our own, fighting the New Labour spin, and triangulation over privatisation, foreign wars, anti-trade union legislation, financial deregulation and austerity. But there are deeper implications of this unthinking and at times sectarian line of attack from our comrades on the left, and not all of them come from a sense of personal grievance, they’re also about the future of the left.
Firstly, the use of the term “Red Tories” to describe lifelong socialists is deeply insulting. Amongst some within the Labour Party, it quite understandably provokes a reaction – and we end up in a downward spiral of name calling and bile. That can’t be good for any of us.
Secondly, the vitriol may serve an immediate purpose – to draw a massive, fat line between the parties and therefore boost both morale and sense of mission within the activist base of those parties, but over the long term, it burns bridges that we may regret in the future – for instance in a political realignment on the left caused by economic crisis, a shift by the major trade unions, or in the event of an upsurge in the racist right. Even on a practical level, it may stop us from working on joint platforms against austerity (whichever party forms a government) or through anti-racism campaigns in the here and now. That too, can only be healthy in the eyes of the most extreme sectarians.
Thirdly – and this is something that is not generally being considered at present – those socialists and radicals who have left the Labour Party for pastures greener, or have found a new hostility for Labour leftwingers, will almost inevitably come to a point where their politics come under challenge by a strong right or centre faction. It’s possible; likely even, that they will have to deal with disappointments, and defeat. When that day comes, it might require different tactics from the uber confident trashing of everyone else on the left. It might even be that there are lessons to be learnt from the history of the Labour left.
It would be a travesty to claim that we on the left of the Labour Party have got it all right. Far from it, but the really important thing about the experience of socialists in the Labour Party is that we have had to deal with reality, with all its disappointments, failures and challenges. That means that we have lost our innocence. Of course, that can work both ways – it can make us cynical and prone to inertia, but it can also give us the chance to “do it better” next time. As an optimist, I tend towards the latter. I think, if we got our act together, the Labour left could be a massive force for change, not just within the party, but in wider society to. Yes, we’ve been beaten, but not decisively – and we’re not the only ones. In a truly hostile climate, no group should be castigated for their defeats. You don’t have to be a fan of what we do. You don’t have to agree with us ideologically or strategically. You don’t even have to show us #solidarity. Just don’t call us “Red Tories”.