Jim Greenhalf reports
On September 24 Labour Party members will decide whether they want Jeremy Corbyn to carry on as leader or Welsh Labour MP Owen Smith to replace him.
If the dark horse Smith is first past the post the Parliamentary Labour Party will breathe a collective sigh of relief. They think he represents the best chance of making the party electable in 2020. After the June 23 Brexit Referendum was lost, more than 40 of them resigned from shadow ministerial and other positions. It was their way of saying that Corbyn had not done enough to persuade voters of the merits of remaining in the European Union.
A very different view of a Smith win is likely from the host of three-pounders, the people who flocked to join the party for a few quid to secure an emphatic victory for Jeremy Corbyn. They were able to do so because Ed Miliband, party leader until the 2015 General Election defeat, had lowered Labour’s annual membership fee from £25. Only another convincing Corbyn win will satisfy them that they have not been stitched up by the Parliamentary party establishment.
It was ever thus. Eighty-five years ago there were riots in Glasgow and Manchester after Ramsay MacDonald turned his back on the party to form a coalition government in the Great Depression of 1931. King George V was said to have asked the moustachioed Scot to play the role of wicked Sir Jasper. The subsequent General Election victory for the National Government decimated Labour, reducing the Parliamentary party to just 56. Ever since then Labour’s rank and file have mistrusted their leaders.
In October 1981, for example, during another civil war in the party over the election of a leader capable of standing up to Margaret Thatcher, Joe Ashton MP told a Solidarity Campaign meeting at Dudley Hill Socialist Club: “I don’t agree with the method of voting for the leader of the Labour Party, it was rotten and corrupt and needed to be changed, but don’t tell me we have changed it for something better. Nothing makes me spew more, and I choose my words carefully, than when I hear members of the party attacking the last Labour Government on the grounds that it betrayed the manifesto.”
He gave the audience of more than 60 a summary of that pre-Thatcher Labour Government’s achievements: the nationalisation of the ship-building and aircraft industries; the scrapping of hospital pay beds; and equal pay for women. The party had to unite and stop the in-fighting if it was to offer itself as a credible alternative to the Thatcher Government. “We have got to get back to deciding if we are going to have an incomes policy, if we are going to come out of the Common Market and how we are going to create one-and-a-half million jobs,” he added. Thirty-five years later the Labour Party is now all in favour of membership of the European Union. Some things change but evidently not the party’s predisposition for civil war.
Is it coincidental that Labour’s internecine battles over the leadership in 1931, 1981 and 2016 occurred during times of economic turmoil? When Joe Ashton came to town unemployment in the Bradford Metropolitan District had shot up to more than 30,000 – nearly three times what it is now. Industrial recession across the country was one consequence of the hike in the price of crude oil imposed by the members of the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in retaliation for Israel’s crushing military victory over an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The revenues from North Sea oil coming ashore – worth more than £40 billion – benefited the Thatcher Government especially during the year-long stand-off with the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984. By that time Labour was in serious conflict with Left-wing elements of the membership – hard-line Trotskyites to some – intent on raising Socialism’s red flag above town halls in Greater London, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester, against the austerity policies of hard-line Thatcherism.
The clash with the Government culminated in a dozen Labour-run local authorities refusing to set a rate, which was illegal. Lambeth, led by ‘Red’ Ted Knight and Liverpool, led by Derek Hatton, were singled out for retribution. The councils had to pay substantial penalties and its leaders were disqualified from holding office. The clash with the Labour leadership culminated in the party conference at Blackpool when party leader Neil Kinnock tore into the activities of what the Press called ‘the Loony Left’. To jeers from Militant Tendency members at the back and cheers from moderates in the middle of the hall, he described the antics on Merseyside as “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council, a Labour council, hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.” Labour’s National Executive Committee followed up by suspending the Liverpool District labour Party and expelling all of a Militant Tendency persuasion.
The leadership election crisis that convulsed Labour in the early 1980s turned out to be a catalyst for change, for out of it emerged the Social Democratic Party. Comprising largely of defecting Labour MPs and former Cabinet Ministers, the SDP was an attempt to shift the battleground of British politics away from the extremities of Left and Right to the centre – a move that Tony Blair’s New Labour was to emulate so spectacularly in 1997. In effect it was a move towards European-style Social Democracy against Democratic Socialism and Conservatism.
Some SDP recruits said they were disillusioned with the Labour’s attitude towards the European Economic Community, as it was then called, the dependency on trades unions’ money and national economic policy. Others were alarmed by the in-fighting over the selection and de-selection of MPs (still an issue today) and the election of the party leader. Former Cabinet big guns Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Dr David Owen and Bill Rodgers, otherwise known as ‘the Gang of Four’, were joined by long-serving back-bencher Labour moderates such as Edward Lyons QC, who represented Bradford West.
Just as many thousands of three-pounders joined the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn, more than 60,000 people signed up for the SDP. Out of the misery of the recession and the warfare in the Labour Party, the SDP was more than a breath of fresh air; the new party offered many the chance to breathe freely again without fear of being challenged by some officious party ‘committee of public safety’ ideologue. Evidently they liked what they heard from former Foreign Secretary David Owen in his book Face the Future:-
“Both parties are locked into dogmatic, doctrinaire, divisive policies which many of their supporters deplore. Yet their leaders appeal to blind loyalty – party first, country second. Adversary politic s thrives on polarisation, polemic and fear…We do not believe in the politics of an inert centre merely representing the lowest common denominator between two extremes. We want more, not less radical change in our society, but with a greater stability of direction.”
Two days of the SDP’s first national conference took place at Bradford’s St George’s Hall, an event welcomed by city centre hotels but snubbed by Labour and Tory councillors on Bradford Council perhaps because for some of them the Gang of Four represented the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who had come to lay waste the two-party system of Lab-Con politics. For all the talk of freshness and fairness the conference was carefully stage-managed with announcements of new defections timed to coincide with media deadlines. Hopes were high. Among the senior members of Bradford Labour Party there was an air of gloom at what might happen and contempt for the traitors who had brought about the uncertainty.
Constituency Labour Parties and the wards that made up each CLP had been infiltrated by the Corbynistas of their time – activists who wanted to change things, who wanted to make Labour MPs directly accountable to their constituents and who wanted those constituents to have an equal say in the election of the national party leader. Most of them wanted Michael Foot to lead the party rather than former Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey. Under Foot, so to speak, they believed the party would win the country for Socialism and kick Margaret Thatcher and her possee of privateering monetarists out of office. Constitutional hard-liners in attitude, they believed that Labour MPs were delegates mandated to carry out the instructions of their CLP, Labour’s National Executive Committee and, of course, the all-important annual party conference – very different then to the tame show-piece affairs they subsequently became. Edwards Lyons thought differently. He said MPs were representatives, not delegates, and as such had the right to make their own judgements on serious policy matters. He denounced what he rather weakly described as “yah-boo politics”, the aggressive, doctrinaire dialectic espoused by those of a more militant tendency.
In March 1981, after more than 30 years in the party, Lyons left Labour’s den and defected to the SDP. For a while the SDP frightened Labour stalwarts and radicals alike. In the summer of 1981 Ken Livingstone, Left-wing leader of the Greater London Council that was, said he could see the Tories vanishing and the SDP becoming the New Right. In April 1988, during an interview with Mr Livingstone, I picked him up on his failed prophecy. He replied: “The projections for the SDP at that time were very favourable. If it hadn’t been for Thatcher’s come-back through the Falklands War, the SDP might have broken through.” Instead, they joined forces with the Liberals to become, after much wrangling, the Liberal Democratic Party. The SDP was dissolved in 1990.
One Labour stalwart who saw the conflict from the inside was Barry Seal, formerly leader of Bradford Council’s Labour Group and for 20 years from 1979 the Yorkshire West Member of the European Parliament. Days before Angela Eagle dropped out of the current Labour leadership race, Dr Seal told me she was just a stalking horse for the real alternative candidate coming up fast on the outside, Owen Smith. Which of the two candidates is he backing to win the leadership and does he think Labour will split as it did on that cold January Sunday in 1981 when the Gang of Four assembled to publish the Limehouse Declaration and announce the creation of the Council for Social Democracy?
Barry Seal, now chairman of Age UK, Leeds, has his money on Jeremy Corbyn. If Owen Smith wins he said he would leave the party after more than 50 years as a member. Although he admits that the divide between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the membership at large is dangerous and may lead to a split of some kind, he believes that the party, like the country, is in need of radical change away from unregulated corporate Capitalism.
He said: “The situation now is similar to 1981 but the big difference is that for 13 years Labour had people like Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair screening the party and changing the make-up of MPs. They pushed Labour more towards the centre to make it a social democratic party where the issue wasn’t the ownership of the means of production but the management of them. Instead of members having a say in policy formulation in ward and constituency parties and the conference, policy forums were set up to discuss ideas passed down by Blair and Mandelson. The present policy forums don’t discuss things from members. Instead of bottom up it’s top down.
“My perspective is that Parliamentary Labour Party members forget the membership who put them there. They are not the same as the membership. They’ve come into politics from university and then working as political research assistants. The majority of the PLP, a lot of them, don’t know what it’s like to have a dead-end job with not enough money to live on.”
The three-pounders who fired Jeremy Corbyn from the obscurity of Labour’s back-benches to the front bench as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, regard him as a democratic socialist, not a social democrat. The difference, as Barry Seal outlined, lies in the ownership and management of the means of production and distribution. A democratic socialist believes that the state should have a controlling interest in fundamentals such as the NHS, power and water supply, transport, housing and education. Social democrats, said Dr Seal, believe in academies, NHS foundation trusts, private finance initiatives and allowing global corporations to own water, power and transport.
He regards Owen Smith as a social democrat because he’s not sure what he stands for. “He’s trying to look as Left as Corbyn but more reasonable in the way he presents things. If he wins I will leave the Labour Party, so will a lot of other people. Under him Labour won’t change, it will become more like the SDP. Corbyn’s opponents say that to win the next general election Labour needs to move to the centre; but I think people are getting fed up with the capitalist system where some people are very rich and others don’t have a job. If Corbyn is confirmed as leader the problem will be with the Parliamentary party. It may split, with a group of MPs declaring UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence); but it won’t necessary split the membership in the country. There would be a battle over the selection of MPs.”
Significant differences between today and 1981 include the role of social media. Thirty-five years ago politics was media driven. Television journalists such as Robin Day, Vincent Hannah, Andrew Rawnsley and Brian Walden, to name but a few, made politics interesting, as did newspaper journalists such as Alan Watkins, Ann Leslie, Polly Toynbee and Peter Jenkins. The public was more engaged in argument; more of them turned out to vote in local and national elections. Today the public dimension has changed out of all recognition. George Galloway, at the Bradford West Parliamentary by-election in 2012, and Jeremy Corbyn in his Labour leadership battle last year, by-passed the usual mass publicity routes with spectacular success. Smart phone technology became the means of organisation and communication, leaving the mainstream media trundling along behind, out of touch and unaware of what was going to happen. More recently, the Brexit Referendum went completely against the expectations of media experts and politicians, mainly because of social media exchanges and blogging.
Barry Seal thinks Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of democratic socialism has broader public appeal than the media allows. “Socialism isn’t communism,” he said. “We had socialism in the post-war Attlee Government which brought in the NHS and the nationalisation of the railways. I used to be regarded as Right-wing in Bradford because I said you couldn’t nationalise everything. You can have small companies running enterprises; but what you can’t have is big corporations running the country’s railways, the water and power industries, the NHS. They can’t be allowed to close down something because it’s not making a big enough profit.”
The turmoil in the Labour Party in the early 1980s sustained the Conservative Party’s grip on power, in spite of its own convulsions over Europe, until 1997 and the age of Tony Blair’s New Labour. Unlike 35 years ago, Labour Party members today, Jeremy Corbyn’s three-pounders, have the means to publicise and assert their wishes and desires irrespective of what the party establishment wants and what well-paid, self-regarding media opinion-formers say. The technology may be unique to this age but rolling dialogue involving friends and strangers is reminiscent of the mid-1840s when the Chartists drew up their six proposals to reform Britain’s Parliamentary democracy. The demands, including secret ballots, payment of MPs, no property qualification for prospective candidates – were the equivalent of Loony Left proposals of the time. However, all but one of them – annual Parliaments – subsequently came to pass.