What is the Centre Ground? Lessons from 1945


In the aftermath of Labour’s phenomenal performance in the 2017 General Election, Tony Blair called on Jeremy Corbyn to return Labour to the centre ground or face political wilderness, warning of the ills of “unreconstructed hard-left economics.” However Corbyn used his 2017 New Years’ message to proclaim that Labour was “stalking out a new centre ground.” What is this lucrative centre ground and who has the key to capturing it? Is it Tony Blair, whose quest to capture the centre led New Labour into a triangulation of twenty years of Thatcherite politics; or is it Jeremy Corbyn, whose manifesto of nationalisation and redistribution, and commitment to peace, has transformed the nature of political debate in Britain? Does the centre ground even exist?

A very important comparison can be drawn between 2017 and the 1945 general election, in which Labour won its first ever majority. Long the orthodoxy among historians, Paul Addison’s contention that “consensus fell, like a branch of ripe plums, into Mr. Attlee’s lap” has seen the post-war period treated as a time of agreement between political parties in which debate was constrained within parameters that were set by the wartime coalition: a mixed economy, the priority of controlling unemployment and a welfare state were the main areas of convergence. Is this the fabled centre ground?

Not according to Winston Churchill. During the 1945 election campaign, Churchill made an explicit comparison between Labour and the Nazi Party by stating that a Labour government would require “some form of Gestapo” in order to implement its programme, only weeks after Belsen had been liberated. Similar smear tactics against Corbyn clearly affected Labour’s performance before the general election, but in June 2017 over 40% of the public voted for Labour- people who obviously did not take completely seriously the claims that Corbyn is a threat to national security. That the public largely rejected the claims that Corbyn and Clement Attlee were hard-left extremists suggests that their politics were far closer to the views of the average person than those of their right-wing detractors.

The assertion by many historians that all politics was conducted from the centre in 1945 is not evident in Labour’s domestic policies. While the Labour governments set about nationalising vast swathes of industry, the Conservative manifesto summed up emphatically in favour of the free-market, arguing that “Nationalisation involves a state monopoly, with no proper protection for anyone against monopoly power. Neither that nor any other form of unfettered monopoly should be allowed to exist in Britain.” While maintaining nationalised industries such as coal and rail, the 1951 Conservative government privatised the steel industry. Evidently, the Conservatives had been forced into accepting a settlement that they were ideologically opposed to since it aligned with the majority of public opinion.

The “unreconstructed hard-left economics” that Tony Blair has warned of bear a lot of resemblance to the policies that won Labour a landslide in 1945. Despite attempts to portray Corbyn and John McDonnell as unpatriotic Marxist extremists, these economics are firmly within the boundaries of Keynesian management theory. And they’re popular- 53% of people in a recent YouGov poll said the they supported the nationalisation of energy companies. Nationalisation is back on the agenda and like in 1945, Labour is winning the argument.

Aneurin Bevan led the Labour government towards creating the NHS in the face of opposition from the British Medical Association, who were backed by the Tories. Although concessions were made to allow private patients, Labour’s NHS was a dramatic step towards universality of provision. Labour’s own wartime policy, outlined in the 1943 publication ‘A National Service for Health’, did not advocate nationalisation of the hospitals. Instead wartime Labour and then the Tories and some members of the 1945 Labour government supported a tripartite system, which preserved voluntary and charitable hospitals. However, Bevan referred to these voluntary and charitable hospitals as an important source of ‘political and social patronage’ for the Tories and pressed ahead with nationalisation. The principle of charity, where welfare is voluntary and totally dependent on the kindness of individuals, is alien to a socialist system and if it were not for Bevan’s efforts, it might have been the basis of our health service today. The NHS is phenomenally popular and perhaps the most enduring achievement of Labour; so popular that these days the Conservatives have had to resort to privatising the system under flowery language such as ‘Accountable Care Organisations’, all while proclaiming their love for nationalised health care.

It would be a positive step towards defending public health care if Labour were to lend their full support towards the NHS reinstatement bill, as Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott and others have done in the past. Since the public are overwhelmingly in favour of public healthcare (83% favoured nationalised healthcare in the recent YouGov poll), it falls upon Labour to make the connection between the public’s desire for nationalised health care and the reversal of decades of privatisation.

Where the left is most disappointed by the 1945-51 Labour governments is in foreign policy. Many prominent left-wingers were placed in domestic departments- Bevan had both housing and health- whereas those on the right of the party were given foreign policy roles. As a result, Labour’s foreign policy accepted the pro-American orientation of the post-war world. Opposition to American dominance came from the Labour left, with Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee, Seymour Cocks, Raymond Blackburn and a dozen other Labour members voting against America’s multi-billion dollar loan to the UK, which entailed commitments to NATO. Although there were some differences between Labour and Conservative foreign policy, most notably on Indian independence, the efforts of some Labour MP’s to create a socialist foreign policy failed. Jingoism prevailed and Britain developed its first nuclear weapon. Ernest Bevin summed up the mood among the Labour leadership: “we’ve got to have a bloody Union Jack on top of it!”

Jeremy Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to peace sets him apart from the majority of the PLP like no other issue.  Although Labour’s 2017 manifesto remained committed to Trident and the 2% of GDP military spending target, there was a moment during the 2017 election campaign that turned the whole debate around foreign policy on its head and in many ways summed up the Corbyn project. Straight after the Manchester terror attack, Corbyn delivered a speech that highlighted the role that British foreign policy in the Middle East plays in fostering terrorism. It totally unconventional for an opposition leader to deliver a political statement on such an issue. If the press and right-wing politicians were to pick a moment to deliver their fell blow and brandish him as a terrorist sympathiser forever, this would be it. Yet Labour’s poll ratings continued to rise. Jeremy Corbyn must continue to demonstrate the merits of an anti-war foreign policy and dispel the myth that wars win elections.

So whose model of the centre ground works best? Is it Tony Blair’s assertion that elections are won by agreeing with your opponents on most major political questions, or is it Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to the many by putting out a distinctly redistributive platform? Labour won a landslide in 1945 by disagreeing with the Tories. If we are confident in our left-wing beliefs, then we should be promoting them without hesitation. What Labour proved in 1945 and are proving again in the aftermath of the 2017 general election is that the centre ground of public opinion is malleable and responds to political arguments. Tony Blair’s impression that centrists are above left/right politics- that they don’t stand for anything- is disingenuous. A centre ground of politicians who go a third way on essentially binary issues such as public or private does not exist- all must take sides. And ever more increasingly of late, these so-called centrists are being proved out of touch with a newly febrile public opinion. Socialists in the Labour Party must resist all efforts to return the party to Blair’s centre ground.



Come on, answer in one word, ‘Yes or No’. “Terrorists – friends or not?”.

corbyn-arrest-rob-scottEver since the Twin Towers came down, mainstream (and therefore right-wing) media opinion has shoved this “choice” down our throats. It screams at us “Terrorists – yes or no?”, “Terrorists – friends or not?”. That’s all that’s needed. There’s no sense in which there might be any grey in what is posited as an utterly black and white question (“Condemn, you bastard and then shut up” is what they’re really saying of course). It started with Bush’s “you’re either with or against us” pledge to hunt down the terrorists and it led us directly to the illegal war in Iraq, and the loss of millions of innocent lives across multiple war zones. Yet still the answer is yes/no, apologise/condemn.

The word terrorist has become non-negotiable, a catch all for a huge variety of political causes and traditions. Like Thatcher’s condemnation of Mandela and the ANC, they can all be spoken about in the same breath – Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA, Sinn Fein. Who cares about whether they are elected? Who cares about their ideology? Who cares about the causes of terrorism? History, pah! Just condemn, you bastard – sit down and shut up. The ironic and tragic thing, of course, is that this political discourse has done nothing but aid and abet more violence, more injustice and more terrorism. Even so, we are not allowed to challenge it, for fear of being labelled “apologists”.

What is also tragic is the way that the left has been so cowed by this narrative that it has responded by obediently shutting up, or even worse, joining in the crusade against a monolithic terrorist ‘monster’. So on one side, we have absolute silence and subservience from the Labour front bench and much of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), and on the other side we have ad hominem attacks against anyone who might not leave their analysis at outright condemnation of Hamas, for instance. Or anyone who might want to explain that while some attitudes are repugnant and parts of these complex organisations are immoral, there are other parts and other forces within those organisations that seek negotiation and can be moved towards peace through dialogue. So screwed up have we become by the dominant, right-wing narrative, however, that many people, who describe themselves as socialists, keep shouting “Yes or No?”, “Friends or Not?”. On the so called ‘libertarian left’, some bizarrely don’t want to know about human rights, or the right to a fair trial (Why would you, when this one fits 140 characters: “You called them “friends”. We saw it on YouTube”). Yes or No? Friends or Not? After almost 15 years of a failed and disastrous  “War on Terror”, and a much more insecure and dangerous world, it’s the wrong question.

So, while it might seem odd to have someone who asks more difficult questions – about how we move towards genuine, peaceful solutions to the crises we are in – thrust on to our television screens, we should support and trust Jeremy Corbyn. As someone who has spent over 30 years as Parliament’s biggest advocate for peace, he hasn’t – believe it or not – got a blind spot when it comes to terrorism, Islamic, Palestinian or otherwise. He’s just one of the few representatives in our party who has the bravery and insight to see that the solutions to terrorism don’t come from the barrel of a loaded gun that George Bush left for us. In that, he is firmly within the longer traditions of the left of the party, from Hardie to Benn, for all it may jar with New Labour and Blair. For that, and his refusal to be cowed, he should be applauded. Whether that makes him a better candidate to be leader of our party, and potentially a better Prime Minister of this country, I’ll let you decide. But I’d certainly feel a lot safer in a Corbyn-led country.


Who are you calling a Red Tory?


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”.


Sleepwalking in the Labour Party

@zx_475@zy_285I know those to the left of me will snort, but I genuinely think there are plenty of good people left in the Labour Party. I’d go further than that. Many of those people sincerely believe in socialist values and a different way of organising society. Most of them were drawn to the party and joined because they believed in those values and because they wanted to turn the things they believed into action. Equally, most of them understand how illogical it is to be basing our policies on Tory spending plans and talking about “responsible capitalism” at a time when the country is in crisis because of austerity and the pillars of capitalism itself are coming tumbling down.

The problem is, however, that these good people seem to believe in magic. That could be the only explanation for the fact that people will voice these views over the dinner table, in pubs and (as Owen Jones has said repeatedly said, by shouting at the telly) and yet do precisely nothing to attempt to change the party into one they could be proud of; one that reflects their values, however imperfectly. Granted, we are slowly moving from a more deeply entrenched quietism to a more public discontent, but still people are not convinced of the need to take action, to take responsibility. What I’ve heard time and time again over what has been a magnificent few months (including the Bedroom Tax Protests, the Miners Gala and the People’s Assembly) is that people, and that includes ordinary Labour members, want a Party leadership that stands up for working people and their families with the same determination that the trade unions today (and the mining unions in the past) have stood up for their members. There is huge frustration at our party representatives who have failed in their basic duty – to represent their communities and the membership views.

Now, I understand that people are demoralised, that they have been defeated again and again by the right of our party. The right and centre of the party seem to have all the cards – the resources, the media, the patronage – while we have been patted on the head and told to smile and wave. The thing is, we’re not little children. Many of us are confident, forceful people who if they were treated like this by their employer, would fight back with a vengeance. So why do we voluntarily submit to being mere cheerleaders in a party that was supposed to be for us, that was set up with the express intention of representing us (working people, the trade unions and the wider communities they come from)?

Tony Blair cemented this idea of going above the heads of the members to appeal to the nation. It was not just anti-democratic, it was a tactic to silence the party membership. We are being served more of the same with One Nation Labour. It’s a ridiculous idea that a party formed by the unions could borrow the clothes of One Nation Toryism. It’s the old New Labour spin – but which of us were consulted? What role did the party members have in this? None at all – it was just a marketing gimmick – like a scene from the Thick of It – and now were stuck with a new branding;  a New Labour lite with a few Union Jack’s thrown in. Smile and wave, guys, smile and wave.

There has been much talk over the last decade about the alienation of the vast majority of working class people from the workings of an increasingly remote political class, operating via the machinations of professionals and with little reference to those people’s real lives. What we need to acknowledge is that this alienation, this disengagement has taken place within the Labour Party too. We have become bystanders in our own party and let the professionals take over – at a local as well as national level. For us, party politics has become a spectators sport. We’ve become too timid to criticise our representatives, because “they work very hard, you know” and “rocking the boat only helps the Tories, you know”. Where does this sort of deference, this quietism end? Well, we know don’t we, because we’ve already been there? Back with  Blair and New Labour.

I realise that I’m talking to a minority here, both in terms of the party membership and the wider left, but I just don’t think it’s an insignificant minority. We talk ourselves down, self-censor our distinct political perspective. There are good reasons for this. Our voices are drowned out on both sides. To the right of us, the right and centre of the party have tight control of the messages given out by the party. They officially tell our story. On the left, we are assailed by the righteous indignation of the outside left, who blame us for that story which we have little or no control over. This has reached its apogee in a relatively new narrative on the so called “revolutionary left” – that Labour socialists provide “left cover” for the austerity-friendly Labour. Of course, this narrative isn’t new at all – it was the tactic employed by the Communist Party during its “Class Against Class” period of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Only the rise of fascism ended this ultra leftist attitude to the Labour left. It wrongly conflates the party left with the leadership and the PLP – which are in most respects polar opposites. Nevertheless it is difficult not to sound apologetic about your membership of the party when being tarred in this way on a daily basis. However (and this is the crucial bit) we need to break out if this defeatism – unless we want to continue to live in this prison created by our political adversaries on both sides.

It’s clear that too many people on the left of the party are paper members only, cowed by defeats, beaten down by the hegemony of the right and the depoliticisation at a local party level – and finally convinced by the leadership who tell them to accept that there is no alternative. Of course, many good socialists have left and that has hit us hard, but for those of us still in the party, is it not time to question the practical usefulness of such membership? In other words, if you’re not in the party to “cause trouble” (i.e ask the questions that need to be asked and organise to win our positions in the party) – considering its trajectory for the last 15 years – what are you in it for?

Rather than moaning in public meetings and amongst comrades, we really need to take some responsibility for this party of ours. It’s time for a new kind of left in the party. One that understands the challenge of the likes of Progress and organises itself to take on those forces; one that tries to mobilise the thousands in the party who have stayed quiet in the face of the Blairite onslaught, and one that takes seriously the task of democratising the party again – even of it means upsetting a few people on the way. One that is less apologetic and more decisive. We either attempt to reclaim the party or we don’t. We either try to claim it for the members or we don’t. We’re either cheerleaders for One Nation Labour or were not, but lets not pretend we haven’t got a choice. We have, it’s just that we’ve been sleepwalking for too long.