Ken Livingstone during his leadership of the Greater London Council, 1981
Now that Labour’s nomination process has closed, party members will start to receive their ballot papers. The result, in broad terms, is pretty much already known. But in any case, this isn’t so much a contest about who is going to win – that will be Jeremy Corbyn, unless something remarkable has happened in the substantial minority of constituencies that did not nominate or amongst the sleeping membership that has not made its voice heard as yet. This is a contest about the Labour Party itself: what is it for, who is it for, does it have a future, has it exhausted its purpose. These questions, whether asked directly or more subtly, are the heart of what’s going on. Once you’ve waded through the online obfuscation, the media manipulation all over the place, watched a handful of pro-Corbyn “news outlets” on youtube, and maybe listened to a few of the speeches from rallies or hustings, you’re left with a distinct impression of two elements of the Labour Party at war with each other not over substance but over mechanisms and methods of achieving the primary goal of the Labour Party in parliament which is to win power. It’s there in print in the rule book. Chapter One, Clause I (ii): ‘its [the party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party’. It continues:
(iii) The party shall bring together members and supports who share its values to develop policies, make communities stronger through collective action and support, and promote the election of Labour Party representatives at all levels of the democratic process.
(iv) The party shall give effect, as far as may be practicable, to the principles from time to time approved by party conference.
The last item there is significant, since it’s really here that the Corbyn project has found itself in difficulty. In conference, the party’s delegates voted to keep Trident. The leader offered a free vote in which he subsequently voted against party policy. Fair enough you might imagine, it’s an important issue and MPs should be able to vote with their conscience (or in accordance, as took place in some constituencies, with a private poll). But as the leader of the party, it is your duty to uphold the integrity of the party itself, which means voting in accordance with the wishes of the party as laid down (as far as may be practicable) in conference. Otherwise, what’s the point either of conference or the pretence of being the ultimate representative of the party? Trident is an emotive issue. But it offers a clear example of the way in which the Labour Party’s constitution is willingly set aside by a leader who is supposed to maintain its integrity.
What’s really at stake is not so much the minutiae of party constitutions but whether or not the Labour Party is to be a ‘socialist’ organisation and one that, in the words of Tony Benn, is ‘more responsive and accountable to rank and file supporters’. Forget about Militant and Trotskyites and all those other over-exaggerated accusations thrown around by the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party: for Corbynism read Bennism revitalised. One does not have to look far in Benn’s substantial body of writing from the late-1970s and early 1980s to find parallels with the present day debates within the Labour Party. Take Benn’s classic Arguments for Socialism (1979). Here we have statements on mutualism, public ownership, green energy, democratic and accountable government, and Europe. But for the absence of housing and social security, and a few updates on context and what’s happened, this could read as an eloquent Corbynite manifesto. But there’s more to it than that.
It would be impossible to suggest that Corbyn has undergone anything like the same kind of political conversions that Tony Benn went through, by the time he entered parliament in 1983 Corbyn was a fully-fledged Bennite. He has never really changed. The year after Corbyn became an MP, Britain was shaken by the miners’ strike. Activists in Islington formed the Islington Miners’ Support Group (based at Islington Town Hall) and twinned themselves with the Cynon Valley Miners’ Support Group in South Wales. The relationship was of particular significance to Tower Colliery and its dynamic – and ideologically focused – lodge secretary, Tyrone O’Sullivan, and it is of no surprise that O’Sullivan is a firm supporter of Corbyn in the present leadership contest. Indeed, is in the context of the miners’ strike that Corbyn first appears in the minutes of the weekly Parliamentary Labour Party meetings. His complaint was a simple one: grassroots activists were working hard to support the strike but the PLP ‘could do more’. This becomes a common theme in the minutes throughout the decade and into the early 1990s: there was always, at least from the perspective of Corbyn, and others such as Dennis Skinner and Benn, an apparent divorce between activism amongst the rank-and-file and cautious inactivity from the parliamentary group. At times this may have been a fair accusation, but was not a universally fair one.
The miners’ strike is increasingly understood – or perhaps re-understood is a better way of putting it – as a moment when anti-Thatcher politics blossomed into a ‘rainbow coalition’. From traditional industrial unions and grassroots labour activists, to lesbian and gay rights campaigners, women’s liberation, race equality campaigners, and a variety of left and left-nationalist opinion. One Plaid Cymru activist and trade unionist put it to me that this rainbow coalition borrowed less from existing party-political organisation than from broad-based campaigns such as the anti-apartheid movement. Others, however, have put across the view that the ‘broad democratic alliance’ was a deliberate political initiative – indeed, this was Communist Party policy. Either might justly be presented as the symptom or the cause, and it certainly depended on which part of the coalition activists were coming from as to whether they saw their entrée as the making of something new or the fulfilment of a political idea that had been mooted (in this guise) in the 1960s. As part of the rainbow coalition, then, groups such as LGSM supported the miners’ strike and in turn, through the London-Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities, the NUM found itself supporting the campaign to keep the Greater London Council. If it is true, as many Welsh historians and social scientists now argue, that the Wales Congress laid the groundwork for the revival of devolution as a political idea, then this aspect is especially intriguing (here isn’t the place to enter that discussion, however).
A left-wing rainbow coalition was certainly part of the strategy employed by Corbyn in the lead up to Ken Livingstone’s left-coup in the Greater London Council (GLC). The previous year, the leader of Lambeth Council, Chris Knight, had launched London Labour Briefing, a left-wing magazine designed (in the words of Ken Livingstone) to be for ‘active militants within the Labour Party and the unions in London’. But it was something else entirely, even if you don’t sign up to the Economist’s description: ‘a sort of pragmatic syndicalist Bennism’. As Rosa Prince notes in her biography of Corbyn, London Labour Briefing was more than simply a magazine, it was a manual of tactics and planning, and almost a force within. It provided the momentum for Livingstone’s capture of the GLC in May 1981. This realisation of political power is important, since it is one of the most common accusations levied at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party at present – he either isn’t, or cannot, win power. Of course it wasn’t power necessarily as might be generally accepted. As Livingstone put it, the aim was ‘to use the council machinery as part of a political campaign both against the government and in defence of socialist policies’. Nevertheless, London Labour Briefing insisted that the ‘task isn’t to pass resolutions demanding the impossible. It is to fight for real power’. This was to be done on the basis of broad democratic alliances, integrating modern movements that would subsequently benefit from Livingstone’s GLC. In the view of historian Geoff Eley:
London Labour Briefing […] recalled Women’s Liberation in the 1970s, which had joined feminism to local activisms around housing and rents, public transport, welfare rights, recreational facilities, childcare, adult and further education, cultural and arts activity, and the plethora of single-issue campaigns from Northern Ireland and anti-apartheid to Vietnam and other Third World solidarities.
If we add in Chile and Nicaragua – a reminder that in the 1980s Jeremy Corbyn was active in the PLP’s Latin America Group (as its secretary) – it starts to sound very familiar. But it also gets more difficult (but again quite familiar). If we turn to Tony Benn’s diaries from that period, namely the autumn of 1981, the nastier side of the London Labour Briefing emerges. That word, so often uttered in Momentum circles now, ‘reselection’, was common place. In one passage, Benn notes a conversation with Denis Healey, who lamented that ‘morale is very bad, the NEC has caused it, and London Labour Briefing calls for “no pity” on reselection’. He (Benn) then cites Neil Kinnock complaining of the need for unity and his concern that ‘Labour’s internal war blanks out our policy’. Before this, in the aftermath of Benn’s narrow defeat in the deputy leadership contest against Healey, the magazine had published a list of those MPs who had not supported Benn and were liable for reselection (Benn recalls Michael Foot describing this as a ‘hit list’ – something confirmed in the PLP minutes). Foot demanded a repudiation of the Briefing, which Benn refused. It’s a moment which occupies quite a considerable amount of space in Benn’s diaries for this period, illustrating quite how seriously it was taken by Foot and those around him. Here, for instance, is Jack Straw, then a first term MP:
The party should show genuine tolerance and not look for “scapegoats”. Tony Benn ought to condemn London Labour Briefing for seeking to create such scapegoats by its attack on certain Members who had exercised their constitutional right in the Deputy Leadership election.
Foot reasserted his position in the final PLP meeting of the year: ‘The Party, of course, accepted extra Parliamentary activities but not attacks on Parliamentary democracy itself’. This was a barely disguised attack on Peter Tatchell, who had advocated in London Labour Briefing the use of extra-parliamentary tactics to combat government policy. Foot had already met with Tatchell informing him that his articles were grounds for disqualification as the prospective parliamentary candidate in Bermondsey. The position was endorsed by the National Executive Committee – by a single vote. Foot eventually abandoned his opposition in July 1982. As Stephen Brooke writes, this episode was fundamentally about the culture of the Labour Party and the attempt by the Left to refashion it. In Tatchell’s view (here writing in the Guardian in January 1982), ‘Labour has to reassert its role as the “natural focus” for all radical ideas and movements, embracing with enthusiasm “new” issues such as feminism, black consciousness, ecology, disarmament, and gay rights’. Those rainbow coalition terms once more.Embed from Getty Images
Peter Tatchell at the time of the Bermondsey By-Election, 1983
What this iteration of the Left lacked, in the end, was a solid political base from which to develop the campaign even further – particularly after the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986. Devolution after 1999 certainly hasn’t delivered in quite the same way as might have been imagined by the Left in the 1980s, and is certainly not the fulfilment of the broad democratic alliance’s ambitions, I don’t think. That’s what made Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 leadership election so significant for this version of the Left: it was the first time in thirty years that the momentum had swung their way. Hence the apparent consistency of policy platform presented by Corbyn, it’s not so much that it could be plucked from the 1980s and plonked down now without alteration – circumstances demand a modern presentation – but that it echoes those moments of seemingly vibrant possibility closed down by the connivance of the parliamentary Labour Party. The grassroots versus PLP ‘antagonism’ that Corbyn had complained about in the midst of the miners’ strike.
Enter Owen Smith. The son of Norette and Dai Smith, Owen is the product of a relatively unique South Walian upbringing. Steeped in the history of the Labour Party – and the wider labour movement – both Smiths (Dai and Owen) point to Aneurin Bevan as their political hero. This isn’t simply a South Walian idolising, as Romantic as anything grounded in reality, this is a recognition of Bevan’s clear commitment to the political solution to socialism and to its sometimes contradictory necessities. This sentence, from Dai Smith’s Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales (1993) sums up what I mean. Bevan was Labour’s ‘one leader who had, indeed, fused practical statesmanship with socialist principle’. Practical statesmanship, socialist principle. If ever there was a strapline for the Owen Smith campaign, that is what they ought to have gone for. I can hear some of the complaints already: that Owen Smith is inconsistent, or sometimes says the wrong thing, and is in any case under the thumb of the right-wing of the PLP. That’s not really fair. But then, in reality, Bevan was accused of all of those things too. Writes Dai Smith:
In the practice of his [Bevan’s] politics he was, naturally, occasionally wrong-headed or inconsistent, and therefore open to charges of deviation from his professed principles. But it is a false dichotomy. What emerges more clearly than anything from a career, by no means saint-like through its angry blemishes, is how scrupulously he tried to act as if his principles or his philosophy should not, in any unbending manner, prevent some kind of viable outcome, acceptable even if compromised.
This is the difference between a politics of ideological purity, which takes a clear and admirable stand on something but ignores (and perhaps lacks, in Bevan’s words, the ‘imaginative tolerance’ for) the alternative possibilities brought to the table by someone else. To come to the table, in other words, prepared to ask the question – why don’t you see this in the same way as me; or why don’t I see this in the same way as you; or how can we reach a deal. This, in the end, is the Left’s biggest challenge, reaching a deal sufficiently acceptable to both sides so as to take charge of the levers of power, to use parliament to defend and advance working-class interests. ‘Our democratic institutions are of great importance’, argued Bevan, channelling Keir Hardie, ‘because it is only through the power of those institutions that we can affect the forces of the state’. And when Owen Smith stood on the platform in Gateshead and declared ‘it’s about power’, was he not channelling Bevan: ‘it is not loyalty that matters – but power’.
It is, of course, all too easy to pluck sentences out of the past and use them to justify political positions. Bevan certainly knew how to galvanise extra-parliamentary movements, during the early years of the Second World War he organised the People’s Vigilance Committee designed to ensure that democracy would carry on amidst non-contestation pacts amongst the three major parties and the addition of Liberal and Labour voices to the overwhelming Conservative majority in parliament. But even this should remind us that Bevan’s true political legacy is as a parliamentarian, he rose to the ‘commanding heights’ of Labour politics in order to effect practical socialism.
The difference between Smith and Corbyn in the present leadership ballot, then, and ultimately the difference between their versions of the Labour Party and their sense of its purpose, is really about which version of the Left you believe in. Forget the Trotskyist conspiracy theories, the all-too-easy accusation (I know, I’ve made it myself) of a leadership ‘cult’ around Corbyn, and the ludicrous idea that Owen Smith is a Blairite, and look carefully at what you – we – wish to achieve. Ultimately that ought to be a Labour government. If we indulge those who believe that the New Labour years don’t count, then the last Labour government was elected in October 1974. But then, Harold Wilson only had a majority of 3, which isn’t much of a majority at all. The last time a Labour Prime Minister won a general election comfortably, if we do not count Tony Blair, was on 31 March 1966. More than fifty years ago. And even then, Harold Wilson was not thought of as ‘true’ Labour.
Out of power, Labour finds themselves in a bind. Take the NHS. It was founded by the Labour Party and began operating on 5 July 1948. A little over three years later, Labour lost the election to the Conservatives and did not win power again until 1964. They remained in office until 1970. To put it another way: in the NHS’s first twenty years of existence Labour ran it for just seven years. In the next twenty years (1968-1988), Labour also held power for just seven years. By the time of the NHS’s fiftieth anniversary in 1998, those fourteen years of office were added to by a single year (unless, of course, it doesn’t count because Tony Blair was Prime Minister). Labour had run the NHS for just thirty percent of its lifetime. It may be sacrilegious to say it, but the Conservatives, rather more than Labour, have been better able to shape and model the NHS. In all those years, they could have gotten rid, if they wanted to. Thought about in these terms, whose NHS is it really?
It should be fairly obvious by now where my vote in this contest is going, but I’ll say it anyway: Owen Smith. I do not, in any meaningful way, disagree with the message of the Corbyn Left. Women’s liberation, gay liberation, racial equality, preserving the environment, nuclear disarmament, peace and reconciliation, I am in favour of all of these things. Likewise, I am in favour of good quality, affordable, rentable housing; I am in favour of social security – and by that I mean real social security which protects the vulnerable, not “benefits” which suggests handouts. But I don’t really think that this contest is about any of that, really. To my mind it’s about how (and whether) Labour reaches out beyond its own family and about who those citizens are perceived to be. And it is for this reason that I diverge (with all the discomfort involved) from my comrades on the Left, from people who are genuine real life heroes, from life-long friends. To do so is to line up alongside those in my own CLP against whom, oftentimes alone, but even when not still very much in the minority, I argued in 2008-2010 about cuts, about tuition fees, about the implementation of austerity and the worsening of the pay and conditions of the lowest paid in the council. A Labour Council, it’s worth stating here. There were no Corbynites then.