“Tony Blair stole my party”. If you hang around in Labour circles often enough, this is something you’re almost guaranteed to hear. It implies, of course, that before 1994 the Labour Party was somehow without a powerful right wing, without an influential body of revisionists, without a precursor to the Blairite model. Somehow Blairism was thoroughly without precedent. Those with a stronger sense of the party’s history point directly at Gaitskellism as evidence enough that the Labour Party has always had an ideological see-saw. Of the two Prime Ministers identifiably of the centre-right of the Labour Party – Tony Blair and James Callaghan – much can be learned, for they point to quite different versions of the Labour Right. The same is true of Hugh Gaitskell and Ernie Bevin and the great antagonist of the interwar Labour Left – Jimmy Thomas. Union bosses and professionals, economic liberals, social liberals, economic conservatives, social conservatives, all of them can be found wandering the corridors of what the Left might like to think of as ‘Traitor’s Towers’.
New Labour certainly, to adopt Stephen Meredith’s useful framework, represents the ‘New Right’ of the party, but it does not represent the entirety of the right-wing. Hugh Gaitskell was not a proto-Blairite and neither was Tony Blair a post-Gaitskellite. To suggest such a thing is to suppose a homogenous right that never existed, or to impose rather more continuity on the strands of revisionist thinking in the Labour Party than can stand up to close scrutiny. And that’s before we get into the works of R. H. Tawney before the Second World War, Tony Crosland from the 1960s, and Roy Hattersley from the 1980s. The Old Right of the Labour Party was not a homogenous group either, coming as it did from certain trade unions, certain parts of the activist base, and some professional workers. Gaitskell the academic, Ernie Bevin the union boss, and those grassroots activists and councillors willing to stand up and denounce the New Left social thought that has influenced so much of New Labour’s approach to civil rights and opportunities. We might think of the Maesteg councillor, W. B. Evans, who stood up at the 1985 Labour Party Conference and denounced the resolution (Composite 26) featured at the end of the film Pride:
As far as I am concerned, it is an illness and a sickness. Because of this unnatural act we have this disease of AIDS spreading through the world and as far as I am concerned everybody in this conference today should vote against Composite 26 because this is a sickness in society.
Loud boos rang around the conference chamber as Evans left the stage that day. He had been interrupted several times during his speech anyway by members of the audience aghast at what he was saying. We all know that the resolution was passed, but perhaps we’ve forgotten some of the antagonism that occurred and why it occurred. I’ll come back this point in a bit. For the moment I want to explore more fully the notion of a spectrum of the Labour Right.
The curious thing about the ‘moderate wing’ before 1945 is how strongly connected it was with the West Country. Although Jimmy Thomas came from Newport and sat in parliament as MP for Derby, his emergence and rise through Labour circles began in Swindon as a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (from 1914 the National Union of Railwaymen). Bevin, whose was born in the Somerset village of Winsford, had his early political formation in the Bristol Socialist Society before ultimately joining the Dockers’ Union and rising through its ranks. His great rival, Ben Tillett, whose positioning on the Labour spectrum is notoriously difficult, was a native Bristolian, likewise a member of the Bristol Socialist Society, and echoed the later career of James Callaghan by joining the Royal Navy as a young man. And although not easily reconciled to the centre-right of the Labour Party, but certainly during his premierships a moderate, Ramsay MacDonald began his political life in the ranks of the Bristol Socialist Society before becoming private secretary of the Liberal MP, Thomas Lough. His seat: Islington West. Parts of it now lie in the Islington North constituency.
Union bosses and journalists – the symbols of Labour moderates in the first half of the twentieth century, and for much of the post-war period too.
To take the case of Jimmy Thomas. A figure who ably schmoozed with royalty and the elite of British society, and was one of the first to recognise that to appeal to a broad spectrum in order to win power, the Labour Party had to assuage the concerns of those most hostile to them. In 1920 he published When Labour Rules, addressed to those who ‘persuaded at last of the seriousness and strength of the Labour Movement, realise that before long Labour will rule, but fail to understand what it portends’. They included the middle classes and the ‘working man who has always voted Tory’. Read without any context, or in a selective way, Thomas’s book seems entirely in keeping with those values now associated with ‘Old Labour’. For instance, his take on nationalisation:
When Labour rules, land, the mines, the railways, canals, shipping, probably also, through the municipalities, the supply of milk and bread – these essentials must all be under the absolute direction of the State.
But at the forefront of Thomas’s thinking was not nationalisation for the sake of economic surety, per se, but about bringing an end to class warfare and obliterating the need for strikes and industrial militancy. In other words, to make Labour respectable enough to achieve its aims without scaring off the middle classes who previously viewed Labour with suspicion and unease. Something that Thomas declares in a chapter devoted to the theme to be ‘a fact’. But Thomas was not going entirely out on a limb. The Party’s 1918 policy statement, Labour and the New Social Order, also sought to allay fears about nationalisation and its perceived threat to individual liberty and freedom. Sidney Webb was a key influence there. Historians John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn note that in the aftermath of the First World War, Labour
stressed moderation and respectability, thereby rejecting any notion that Labour did not deserve the nation’s trust as a party of government.
Keith, I should add, is a former colleague of mine, and left the Labour Party in 1994 following the revision of Clause IV. He is no apologist whatsoever for the right-wing of the party in any formation. And yet, as Steven Fielding’s work on the 1945 general election illustrates too, Labour’s appeal to the electorate was always moderated by the need to win over more than the natural activist and trades union base of the party. It needed more than the momentum they could provide. Some of this was achieved by embracing ‘the dark arts’. Through the interwar years, the party learned how to utilise the media, to feed information carefully to the press and eventually broadcast media, and seek to control what we would now call the news cycle. One of the ideas commonly iterated in parts of social media today about the hostility of the “MSM” undoubtedly ignores the fact that Labour’s efforts at media manipulation stretch back to the beginning of the party as a serious parliamentary force. The most enthusiastic embrace of the party’s media strategy came from the centre-right – at least before a certain Tony Benn got involved. As Laura Beers notes, Gaitskell shrugged off accusations that embracing the media too heavily was tantamount to admitting that commercialism was better by ‘noting that the new techniques […] at least had the benefit of success’. In this case, we’re all Gaitskellites now.
Of course, we know that engagement with the media – and social media – is an important part of Labour strategy on any wing of the party, not just the right. It may not be to the tastes of the Labour Left (thankfully) to cosy up to the Murdoch press, but it is not beneath them to adopt digital strategies of marketing and media manipulation just the same as their opponents. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith run their campaign websites for the Labour leadership using the NationBuilder platform. For those unfamiliar, NationBuilder was developed in the aftermath of the 2008 Obama campaign, the first election to really exploit social media for political purposes. In essence it allows campaigners to develop an interlink between various social media platforms in order to spread campaign narratives, maintain connections between activists and candidates, gain knowledge about where activists are and what they’re sharing online, develop and analyse campaign data, and ultimately build an activist base without the physical effort of knocking on doors and generating it personally. The greatest exponents – and most adept users – of NationBuilder in Britain are the Scottish National Party. Their success is there for all to see.
Formation and control of “digital” narratives (that is, online) is not really much different from formation and control of “analogue” ones, but the perception that the digital medium is much less subject to manipulation and is therefore more democratic seems to have encouraged the contrast drawn between the New Labour technique of seeking allies in the print and broadcast media and the populist Left’s use of Twitter, Facebook, and online blogging tools. The fact that the two candidates vying for the Labour leadership are relying on the same model of online data generation, narrative formation, and manipulation, ought to alert us to the fact that that perception is a little out of focus.
The battle for Labour’s soul, then, isn’t really about “Old Labour” and “New Labour”, so much as different directions from the New Left of the 1960s. Think of how many of the New Labour cabinet came from Leftist positions – John Reid from the Communist Party; Robin Cook from the Tribune Group (at one time known as the Bevanites); Alistair Darling was famously a Trotskyist; and David Blunkett ran the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire (Sheffield). Even Tony Blair admitted in a letter to Michael Foot that ‘I came to Socialism through Marxism (to be more specific through Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky)’. We should never forget either that Eric Hobsbawm – the old Communist – was a muse to Neil Kinnock’s leadership. Old Labour, tied as it was to the fortunes of the major trades unions, especially the National Union of Mineworkers, cannot come back. There is no return, however much the appeal is made on a Romantic level, to a time when the flag of the National Coal Board flew over coal mines in Barnsley, Bargoed, and beyond. Whenever someone suggests re-opening the mines, I hear in my head the old Max Boyce song Duw It’s Hard:
And they’ll close the valley’s oldest mine
Pretending that they’re sad.
But don’t you worry, butty bach,
We’re really very glad.
Mining was dangerous and dirty work. It fulfilled the economic needs of the industrial revolution, but its time is over. Back in the 1960s, crowds might have gathered to boo Harold Wilson on tours of mining areas as the government’s pit closure programme cut into the industry, but careers officers were also complaining in their reports that young people simply weren’t willing to take up the jobs that still existed in the industry. In parts of South Wales they noted that unemployment could be, to all intents and purposes, wiped out if only young men went into mining. They chose not to.
If the Old Labour of unions and heavy industry has passed, then so too have the conservative values that lost to the New Left in the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Values that were once held within Labour circles quite as much as Conservative ones. It is absolutely right that black and white minstrelsy and other associated forms of racism and cultural appropriation are now very much banned from mainstream discourse. Likewise, our society is far more conscious of homophobia and whilst anything other than heteronormative sexuality remains somewhat marginalised (understandable given heterosexuality is the ‘default setting’ of contemporary society) we have at least reached a position where tolerance is normative. The goal of the more radical New Left of overthrowing heteronormativity entirely remains distant. And more controversial. Less progress has been made, remarkably, in gender relations. It’s still far too easy to make – and get away with – gendered comments that would simply be unacceptable in other contexts. It is beholden on us all to fight to end gender discrimination and go that step further and end patriarchal discourse. Nearly five decades after pay equality legislation for women, we should not still be hearing of a gender pay gap.
The dividing line, as Peter Hitchens points out in his book Broken Compass, is actually between complete transformation of social structures – the logical follow through of New Left thought – and the installation of tolerance, which was the compromise between older and newer forms of public morality. That is in essence the fault line that we now live with. It is not a division between ‘metropolitan’ and ‘peripheral’ (or however else the binary might be composed) but between those who wish to overhaul structures which privilege men, white men, white straight men, able-bodied white straight men, and those who do not. Or, put more straightforwardly, a divide between those who can tolerate tolerance but go no further and those who see tolerance as merely the foundation of a more radical transformation. Although our reasons for thinking about it are quite different, Hitchens is right to point out this fault line and where it comes from – namely the social values and critique of social hierarchies developed by the New Left.
The Corbyn wing of the party represents that other path away from a New Left foundation. It shares to a large extent the social values but places considerable emphasis too on anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-militarism. In some respects, this version of the New Left can seem quite conservative too – interested in the preservation of things as they are (or more often as they were once). The historian E. P. Thompson reflected on this criss-crossing of radicalism and traditionalism in his essay on ‘commitment in poetry’:
Some of the values of ‘tradition’ and of ‘England’ (and Scotland and Wales) are coming across and regrouping at another corner of the Left. Some of us found ourselves, at the end of 1978, somewhat to our own surprise, defending passionately the integrity of the jury system (one of our oldest institutions) against not only conservative judges and police but a Labour Attorney-General and in the face of an astonished audience of advanced intellectuals and Marxist-structuralists who saw us as entrapped within the ideological mystifications of bourgeois liberalism. Where was the ‘various England’ of the right then? And where was the Left?
Who is more radical – the “New Labour” Euro-federalist or the “Old Labour” Brexiteer encouraged by a vision of a country that was?
There is no easy answer to that.
In his letter to Michael Foot written in 1982 and published in the Daily Telegraph in 2006, Tony Blair reflects on reading Clement Attlee’s contribution to the Left Book Club, The Labour Party in Perspective published in 1937. He draws from it Attlee’s observation that
There is today as much criticism of the Labour Party as ever, especially from those whose enthusiastic desires make official policy and action appear too slow. I am glad this should be so. Self-criticism is a healthy thing so long as it does not lead to a paralysis of the will.
[…] In a party of the left there should always be room for differences of opinion and emphasis. If the party is to renew itself by drawing on the rising generation, there will necessarily be disagreements due to the different environment in which the young have grown up.
On the other hand, there is a danger that a party may be so concerned about its own health that it becomes a political valetudinarian, incapable of taking an active part in affairs. It may discuss its own internal condition to such an extent that it disgusts all those with whom it comes in contact.
Attlee, of course, came to power in the Labour Party as a result of a successful coup launched by right-wing union bosses hostile to George Lansbury. Little more than a month later Attlee was himself challenged by his great rival Herbert Morrison (a right-winger) and Arthur Greenwood (who was close to Bevin and the other union leaders). In that leadership contest, made famous by the alleged manipulation of the result by the masonic New Welcome Lodge (of which Greenwood was a member), Attlee won an easy victory. The spill itself is not remarkable, given the scale of Attlee’s triumph (88 votes to 48), but 1935 represents an interesting moment in the party’s history. Earlier in the year Hugh Dalton, a close ally of Hugh Gaitskell, and in 1935 of Herbert Morrison, had published his proto-revisionist Practical Socialism which laid the ground for the mid-century ‘third way’ typically referred to as Gaitskellism. He openly questioned the principle of nationalisation, something that earlier moderates like Jimmy Thomas did not do. When, in 1955, Gaitskell emerged as Attlee’s successor, against Morrison on the one hand and Aneurin Bevan on the other, the nuances of Labour politics were confirmed. Gaitskell’s victory can be partly attributed to support from the trade unions. As Stephen Haseler writes in his 1969 study, the alliance between Gaitskell and ‘the loyalism and moderation of the major trade unions […] controlled the Party for the rest of his lifetime’. The direct contest for the party treasurership between Bevan and Gaitskell in 1954 even saw Gaitskell, the university lecturer, win the support the National Union of Mineworkers over Aneurin Bevan the former miner!
So whose party, in the end, did Tony Blair really ‘steal’? The party of James Callaghan, Hugh Gaitskell, Hugh Dalton, Ernie Bevin, Herbert Morrison, and Jimmy Thomas? That would be quite difficult to argue coherently. Of the main political parties in Britain, none has generated as much debate as the Labour Party – it’s not very difficult to see why. But in reflecting on the ideological challenges that face the contemporary party, on whether the party should seek practical socialism or idealist socialism, on the necessity of action over and above internal debate and discussion, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Labour Party is a complicated organisation. And because of that complexity, things are never so simple as the epithets ‘Red Tory’ or ‘Blairite’ or ‘Trot’ suggest. The Blairite wing of the parliamentary party, in retreat for two successive elections, is small; the Corbynite wing of the parliamentary party has always been small; the centre of the spectrum is not. Only there – amongst the ironically named ‘soft left’ – is Labour really strong enough to push forward.
But civil wars produce anger and hostility. In a social media age, with narratives carefully controlled by digital platforms, they can prove extremely destructive. But in the end our duty as Labour members is not to any single leader but to the party and the people who place trust in its ability to bring about meaningful change. So let me finish with this quote from Nye Bevan’s 1953 conference speech. It is, I think, apt to our times:
What we have to bear in mind all the while is that no matter how vehement we may become, no matter how pungent our expressions, no matter how warm our feelings sometimes […] behind us there are millions and millions of ordinary men and women who are expecting us to do our duty. And expecting us to set aside any personal disagreements in the interests of the great movement to which we belong.