Britain: The road to New Labour

Neil Kinnock’s speech to the 1985 Labour Party conference signalled the start of a purge of Marxists from the party and anticipated the creation of New Labour.

Article from Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales)

MANY YOUNGER READERS will only remember the Labour Party as New Labour – a bourgeois political party based on the ideas of neo-liberalism. For most of its history, however, it was rooted in the organised working class and was formally committed to socialism, albeit producing leaders such as Ramsey MacDonald, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Neil Kinnock, who were far more interested in accommodating themselves to capitalism than promoting socialism.

The party was born at a time of heightened class tensions. In 1918, the same year as the party conference was addressed by a representative of the Russian Bolshevik Party, it adopted Clause IV, Part 4 of its constitution, formally committing it to the socialist transformation of society. (see box)

Such origins are a million miles removed from the sanitised party of Blair, Mandelson and the Milibands which, as the current leadership election demonstrates, is still wedded to neo-liberalism. Because of its prior existence as a bourgeois workers’ party, it made sense for the forerunners of the Socialist Party – Militant supporters – to be individual members of the party and its youth wing, the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS).

In 1983, in the wake of a massive election defeat, the party elected Kinnock as leader. He and his followers were ruthlessly determined to rid the Labour Party of Marxists, as I found to my cost when I was expelled from Cardiff South and Penarth Constituency Labour Party (CLP) 25 years ago. Ultimately, Kinnock was successful in driving out the Marxists – at the price of destroying the Labour Party as it had existed until then.

Ruling-class pressure

THE 1970s WAS a decade of class struggle that radicalised growing sections of the working class. This in turn affected the Labour Party, as CLPs and party conferences endorsed a number of left-wing policies. The decade ended with the defeat of Callaghan’s right-wing Labour government and the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher whose brutal brand of Toryism was unique in post-war Britain. During the 1980s, support for Militant grew considerably in both the CLPs and the LPYS, particularly in Liverpool.

Thatcherism accelerated the radicalisation of the working class and the shift to the left as many workers expected Labour to champion the working class with the same passion as Thatcher represented the ruling class. Coupled with the radicalisation of the party was an organised campaign led by Tony Benn and the late Eric Heffer, a Liverpool MP, to democratise the party and ensure that future Labour governments did not drift into right-wing policies.

These developments were viewed with consternation by the ruling class which, through the mass media, expressed concern at the growth in support for socialism in the party. They urged their shadows in the Labour Party to take action to reverse these trends. The demand was raised for disciplinary action against Militant supporters, branded as ‘infiltrators’ into the Labour Party. This was an outright lie. From Labour’s inception, Marxists had been party members. And, as a relatively democratic party, Labour had always allowed like-minded individuals to organise. What irked our opponents was our capacity to be better organised than most.

In 1980, Michael Foot became party leader. He was from a left-wing background, had once edited the left paper, Tribune, and had suffered in previous witch-hunts against supporters of Aneurin Bevan. In 1983, however, Foot buckled to pressure and initiated the expulsion from the party of the then editorial board of Militant: Peter Taaffe, Ted Grant, Lynn Walsh, Clare Doyle and Keith Dickinson. Foolishly, Foot and others believed that by cutting off the head of Militant its growth in the Labour Party would stop. This did not happen because working-class men and women had endorsed Marxism of their own volition – not through the ‘manipulation’ by infiltrators.

Labour fought the 1983 election with its most left-wing manifesto since 1918. It called for the reversal of all Tory cuts, scrapping Britain’s nuclear weapons, repealing anti-union laws, and the restoration to public ownership of all industries and services privatised by the Tories.

The Tory press kept up a remorseless campaign against the ‘dangers’ if Labour won. The attacks on three Marxists – Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall – standing as official Labour candidates in Coventry, Liverpool and Bradford, were particularly vicious.

Kinnock’s betrayal

THE LABOUR PARTY lost the election, with the Tories securing a massive parliamentary majority (albeit losing 685,000 votes). Clearly, the Tory press campaign, including its promotion of the alliance between the Liberals and a right-wing Labour split-off, the Social Democratic Party, had its effect, but some within the Labour Party also hoped for a defeat. In Cardiff South and Penarth, where Callaghan was standing for re-election, people attending what they thought was a routine election meeting heard Callaghan attack Labour’s defence policy in front of representatives of the international media!

Following the 1983 election, the ruling class and its shadows in the Labour Party argued that Labour’s defeat resulted from a left-wing manifesto with too much emphasis on socialism. None of the proponents of this view were able to explain the results in Liverpool. Given a big national swing to the Tories, Liverpool, where Labour was clearly identified with the left, recorded a swing to Labour which, if repeated nationally, would have been sufficient to form a Labour government.

Such details were ignored as Labour was urged by its political enemies to ‘modernise’, including a purge of Marxists from its ranks. This was the key issue in the leadership election following Foot’s resignation in 1983. One candidate was Roy Hattersley – a Labour right-winger mistrusted by many party members and trade unionists for his record in government. This mistrust led a section of the ruling class to hold back from promoting him as the candidate to bring about the desired counter-revolution in the Labour Party. Another candidate, Kinnock, was not tainted with such mistrust and claimed to be left-wing.

In reality, his links with left-wing ideals were very tenuous. In 1981, he and his supporters effectively sabotaged the chances of Tony Benn becoming deputy leader of the Labour Party. Some Tory newspapers warmed to Kinnock, referring to him as ‘soft left’ – in contrast to the ‘hard left’ of Benn and Heffer and the ‘illegitimate’ left of Militant – and he won by a large majority, with Hattersley as his deputy.

Kinnock’s efforts to ‘modernise’ the Labour Party were frustrated by two major developments. In March 1984, the provocative behaviour of the Tories led to the epic miners’ strike, which lasted until February 1985. At grassroots level most Labour members saw the Tories determined to smash the miners and their union, and expected Kinnock to support them. But Kinnock regarded the strike as the last thing he wanted given his modernisation agenda. In private, he attacked the strike. In public, he maintained a craven silence.

The other development frustrating Kinnock’s plans was the election of a Labour council in Liverpool led by a number of Militant supporters, as explained in the book by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn, Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight. Liverpool Labour council was determined to lead a fight-back on behalf of a city whose people had been brought to their knees by poverty, unemployment and bad housing. From the outset of the struggle, Kinnock was implacably opposed to the strategy of Liverpool Labour council, even when it won what most saw as a major victory over Thatcher in 1984. One year later, when the determination of the Liverpool labour movement led Thatcher to consider more concessions, Kinnock blew the prospects of a settlement out of the water with his disgraceful speech to Labour Party conference (see box). In this he broke an elementary rule that anyone describing themselves as a socialist should abide by: he attacked workers in struggle.

The following day the gutter press praised him for his ‘brave speech’. Ordinary party members, particularly in Liverpool, were stunned by his breathtaking hypocrisy. He failed to mention a single one of the huge achievements of the council that had succeeded against all the odds in dramatically improving housing and employment in the city. Despite his lies, not a single worker lost his or her job as a result of council policy, in contrast to the many Labour-run councils that responded to Thatcherism with massive redundancies.

Labour’s purge trials

THIS SPEECH WAS the green light for a mass purge of Marxists from the party. Quietly the word went out: where witch-hunters were in the majority, expel; where not, as in Liverpool, Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) would do the dirty work. The Liverpool socialists were referred to the NEC which, in 1986, after ten meetings and at an incredible cost of £250,000, expelled nine party leaders with a combined party membership of 141 years.

In November 1985, Cardiff South and Penarth CLP began proceedings to expel myself and two others, Dave Bartlett and Diane Mitchell. As I attempted to address the CLP executive committee against my proposed expulsion, I appealed to the chair to stop being howled down by Callaghan supporters. The chair responded by joining in himself. Faced with such hooligan behaviour, I had no option but to walk out of the meeting, learning later from the South Wales Echo that the executive had recommended ending my almost 20-year membership of the Labour Party.

Throughout the country, Militant supporters were being subjected to such treatment, and this led many of us to initiate legal action. In every case this was taken with great reluctance, as many workers had understandable reservations about taking the Labour Party to court, and was never a substitute for a political campaign.

The experience in Cardiff, after the establishment of a defence fund endorsed by a former mayor of the city, was that money flowed in for our legal costs. One donation was from a South Wales miner who had fought in the Spanish civil war with the international brigade. With the help of a good barrister, we showed that the Cardiff South and Penarth witch-hunters had systematically broken Labour Party rules in our treatment. Within weeks our party membership was restored.

Similar debacles took place in many other CLPs. This later led the Labour Party to establish the National Constitutional Committee (NCC), to streamline expulsions. Having had my party membership returned, by 1988 I was referred to the NCC. Following a very serious illness, when time was ever more urgent, I decided to concentrate my political efforts on Militant and trade union work in the lecturers’ union, NATFHE. I resigned my Labour Party membership with few regrets, after more than 22 years membership. Meanwhile, Kinnock was showing how correct our perspectives had been. He had turned from purging Militant to purging party policy. Every one of the gains made by the left was removed.

Paving the way for Blair

THE MAJOR PROBLEM with Kinnock’s plan to make the Labour Party more electable was that it failed to impress the voters. In 1987, after a very presidential election campaign, in which the 1985 speech attacking Liverpool council was used in an election broadcast, Thatcher was returned with a majority only slightly less than the Tories had in 1983. In the dying years of her premiership, however, Thatcher scored a spectacular own goal with the introduction of the poll tax. Throughout Britain millions of working people could not, or refused to pay this iniquitous tax. On the ground, Militant supporters responded by organising anti-poll tax unions, giving support to non-payers. A Sun editorial referred to the advocates of non-payment as ‘Toy Town Trots’. Following their lead, as ever, Kinnock employed the same term in a speech attacking non-payment with far more force than the poll tax itself. At the height of the non-payment campaign, the Tories dropped Thatcher as leader. Militant – certainly not Kinnock and the Labour Party – deserves the credit for her downfall.

Kinnock’s eventual replacement, John Smith, elected after the 1992 election defeat, was another moderniser. After his death in 1994, he was replaced by the moderniser of all modernisers, Tony Blair and, in 1995, Blair persuaded the Labour Party to drop Clause IV, a truly defining moment in the party’s history. The party with a working-class base and capitalist leadership had now become a bourgeois political party. In this sense, the war on Marxism unleashed by Kinnock had been won, but at the terrible price of destroying the Labour Party.

Looking back on all this, it is still difficult not to get angry. During their heroic strike, I met miners who with their families had been to hell and back. Their communities today are still ravaged, and their youth have turned to drugs. What contempt do these brave men and women have for the multi-millionaire Kinnock ensconced in the House of Lords? Our crime was to devote ourselves tirelessly to fighting the Tories, the employers and advocating socialism. Our departure paved the way for upper-middle-class upstarts like Blair, Mandelson and the Milibands to take the party over. They were the real infiltrators, helped on their way by Kinnock and others.

Clause IV, Part IV of the Labour Party constitution:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”.

Kinnock attacks Liverpool council at the 1985 Labour Party conference:

“I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end with the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council! – hiring taxis to scuttle round the city, handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”.

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October 2010