The Labour Party abandoned socialism…

Red-Square MalevichColin Piper, from Brighton Left Unity, argues for the Socialist Platform by
challenging the consensus view of recent Labour Party history and suggesting there are lessons of relevance to our current discussions.

There is a narrative, unquestioningly accepted and repeated ad nausea by the mainstream media, that the Labour party lost four successive elections between 1979 and 1992 because it was too left-wing. Lord Kinnock, as he is now known, and Tony Blair made Labour electable again by expelling Militant, abolishing Clause 4 Part lV of Labour’s constitution and ending the union block vote. This then led to Labour’s ‘landslide’ victory of 1997.

It is a measure of the power of the media that these arguments seem to have a resonance even within Left Unity, comprised of some of the most class-conscious people in our society. The Socialist Platform apparently has nothing in it “to appeal to the people putting themselves on the line in Balcombe” and to accept it would condemn Left Unity to being a party “that gets (no) more than .002% in elections”.

Comrades let us look at the facts. In 1945 the Labour Party received the support of 35% of the electorate. In the 1950 election Labour’s support increased to 39%, though the effect of boundary changes led them to only have a tiny overall majority. It is interesting to note that the key issue at that election was nationalisation. The Labour Party was committed to extending public ownership, the Tories were opposed to it and the Liberals (who got only 9% of the vote) condemned both the major parties for fighting a ‘class struggle’.

Labour called another election in 1951 and saw their support increase still further, this despite the continued existence of food rationing. Labour’s support in 1951 had risen to 40% of the electorate (an all-time high) but they lost the election despite polling more votes than the Conservatives. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tony Blair’s ‘landslide’ victory of 1997 by contrast was on the basis of the support of just under 31% of the electorate. Tony Blair had increased Labour’s support in the country by a mere 3.8% in 5 years while the Tory party tore itself to pieces over Europe.

In that election nearly 30% of voters stayed at home and, of those that did bother to vote, over a quarter voted for someone other than the two main parties. It is New Labour and not the left who appeal to an increasingly narrow group of people and both they and the Tories achieve power on the basis of massive abstentions by the disaffected whose support they no longer make any effort to attract.

The British Labour Party abandoned socialism while in opposition but other socialist parties moved to the right whilst in power. The Socialist Party in Portugal was in opposition for over 10 years after forming a coalition government with the centre-right, PSOE lost power in Spain after introducing cuts and so on. The argument that these parties moved to the right to attract more votes or gain broader appeal is therefore fatuous. We must be careful not to apply this fatuous argument to the discussions taking place within Left Unity.

Left Unity needs to be socialist for “the people putting themselves on the line in Balcombe” and everyone else fighting this blitzkrieg, precisely because only socialism can stop it. My view is that the Socialist Platform, of those currently available, most clearly explains what socialism means and how it can be brought about.

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9 responses to “The Labour Party abandoned socialism…”

  1. Ray G says:

    Good points Colin. I agree with you absolutely. In fact all the individual members of Left Unity that I have ever met accept that we need to campaign for public ownership of the large, strategic companies, as well as gas, water, transport etc, and the banks, and also for fairness, equality and justice. ALL of the recent rash of ‘platforms’ similarly agree.

    If we all believed that you could not argue for these policies and persuade people then we would all be in the Labour Party or in despair (or both!). Of course it is true that Kinnock’s and Blair’s abandonment of these arguments, (and Wilson and Callaghan and Gaitskell and even Attlee) has left Labour unable to counter the ideology of the right and in fact to actively promote it.

    That much is agreed. The only issue is whether you put forward a more nuanced view of ‘socialism’ open to broader support, or a narrow cliched, prescriptive road map designed simply to divide and establish ‘left’ credibility.

    I support none of the ‘platforms’. The LPP does indeed leave the vision of the society we would like to achieve rather hazy, and that needs to be tightened up before I could support it, but I see very many future problems of division, purism, academic nit-picking and most importantly, lack of growth if the narrow SP statement is supported. Don’t feel you have to support it just because it uses the ‘S’ word. There are more ways to get socialism than by simply proclaiming it.

    We need to consider HOW to win large numbers of people who have not yet got a thoroughly worked out principled position, those who are muddled or inconsistent, those who have worked out their own theories of varying logic, those who want to fight back but don’t know how, or even why, as well as those with a wealth of experience in real campaigning who can teach us all something about what we need to do.

    Among these there will also be those for whom socialism, before it can be defined and explained and separated from all the fake and distorted socialisms, is a source of misunderstanding or even hostility or distrust that has built up over the 62 years since the end of the Attlee government, years of Stalinist oppression and collapse, of neo-liberal ideological onslaught, the smashing of the trade union movement and Labour betrayal (both old and new versions), as well a fair bit of left-socialist silliness.

    In the process of working together in Left Unity, campaigning, discussing, listening and disagreeing, a new party can be built, with a principled logical view of the way forward but no number of oh-so-revolutionary announcements offers a shortcut out of this messy, frustrating, fascinating business.

  2. johnkeeley says:

    It’s quite worrying how many people in Left Unity can regard themselves as being left-wing but not socialists.

    There does seem to be a middle-class politically-correct contingent who think being left-wing is to focus on justice for minorities whilst creating some kind of idyllic Swedish-style social democracy.

    This is the weakness with trying to create a broad party from nothing. At least the Labour party came out of the unions to give it a real working class orientation. If we are to create a broad party that fights for the interests of the workers we need a cornerstone to build upon. That needs to be the fight against austerity.

    That doesn’t mean we have to say the only solution is socialism, even if ultimately it is. We fight for reforms that expose the class nature of the system. The obvious example being the Tobin tax. A tax on every financial transaction would eliminate any need for any cuts whatsoever. We don’t have to pay for their crisis, the bankers can pay for it themselves.

    • PhilW says:

      The purpose of the Tobin tax is to provide stability in international currency markets, not to raise revenues. I have no idea if it would actually work in the way it is intended to, but if it was effective in its aim, it would not raise a large amount of money. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong to support the tax, as a means of controlling speculation, but it seems odd to propose such a measure as a means of generating income for governments, when you can’t know how much it will raise.

      It would be better for Left Unity to campaign against income inequality, through a much more progressive income tax system and through a maximum income for an individual, from all sources, of, say, £70,000.

      On the issue of socialism: if there a people in LU who do not see the need for socialism , but want to fight austerity, imperialism, oppression and the destruction of the environment, I think it is a mistake to insist to strongly on a socialist objective, as a commitment for the party. After all, socialism is not exactly on the agenda at the moment. This is a debate that should be allowed to rise organically in the party, as the struggle against the depradations of capitalism develops.

      I’m disappointed that the “debate” over the programme of LU has been conducted in the way that it has and I think it could be very damaging. In my opinion, the originators of the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform should try to hammer out a common position, acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the membership, and start to work on what the Party actually DOES in its day-to-day activity, rather than what it has on a piece of paper tucked away in a drawer somewhere. Maybe the membership of LU can be mobilised to actually bring this about!

      • John Keeley says:


        Yes, for Tobin it was about bringing stability.
        For us it can be about taking money from the bankers.
        Just how much we can get from it will obviously depend upon the % rate & how effectively it can be applied.
        This is why we also need capital controls & seizure of bank assets.
        There’s plenty of wealth in the City we can take to avoid any austerity cuts.


      • Derek Marsdon says:

        I think the very reason socialism is not on the agenda is because nobody is raising it apart from small groups. The need has never been greater. On the past the trade unions and Labour Party would have been at least using the “S” word. The job of activists was to explain it. Today I think we have to raise it and explain it. New Labour and the Lib Dems are there for social democrats and political agnostics. Surely the one thing that should hold a broad, genuinely left movement together is the objective of socialism.

  3. It is a myth that the Labour Party was ever socialist. There were many socialists within the Labour Party from the beginning and throughout its history of course, but at all times the Party acted in the interests of preserving capitalism, particularly in its role in government.

    Nationalisation following the 1945 period was a progressive policy at the time but it was not socialism. The sign erected saying “This Colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people” says it all. The NCB was a government body, not “workers’ control” and could be just as bloody-minded an employer towards the workers as the previous private owners. ‘State-isation’ of this sort, promoted by Herbert Morrison, was an inadequate policy. The coal industry was making a loss and the private firms were compensated for the takeover. Previous governments involving the Tories had taken over the coal mines and coal stocks and while the Tories were opposed generally to nationalisation, the only one they fought hard against in the period of the Attlee Government was Iron and Steel, because it had been very profitable. 13 years of Tory government 1951-1964 did not undo any of the major post-war nationalisations of Labour.

    There is a myth of a golden age of Labour Party and Labour government, but while Labour took some progressive steps at times, the reality is that socialism was not the outcome. The idea that socialism can come about through nationalisation, for example an enabling act passed by parliament taking the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ into state control as advocated by Nye Bevan, would be just state ownership, not socialism. It might be progressive and positive – it happened in Portugal in 1974, but Portugal didn’t become a socialist state, then or now.

  4. Curlew says:

    Just ‘dipping’ in here, Colin

    To the others on the SP posting: I reckon there’s too much talking in Left Unity and not enough doing. If you are not socialist then you might as well be Labour/Lib-Dem/Green. Even Labour says it’s socialist on the membership card. Don’t be frightened of the word – you might sound like you are ashamed of your dissent. What then is the point?

    Curlew of W.London

    • PhilW says:

      Those who argue that LU will have no problem in proclaiming socialist doctrine from the rooftops seem to be forgetting the history of the last thirty years. The fact that the Labour party describes itself as socialist is an illustration of the problem, not an indication of how “tame” the word really is. Many people will want to fight austerity, racism etc. but will be wary of socialism, precisely because it has been identified with the LP, or the USSR, or both. Not only that, to them these are “socialism in practice” and you can’t just counter that misconception by proclaiming, with no concrete examples, “no, it’s US who are the REAL socialists”, or – even worse – excluding from the party those who think the LP and USSR were socialist.

      It’s going to take a lot more than that, as the far left has been finding out all these years.

      In my opinion, the best way to start is to get down to fighting the attacks of the capitalists, with a series of demands, alliance policy and actions that meet the needs of the current situation. In the process of doing that, we can debate how the Left Party moves forward.

  5. PhilW says:

    In reply to John Keeley’s comment on my comment on the Tobin Tax:

    The point I was trying to make is that the Tobin tax will do either of two things, but cannot effectively do both. It EITHER raises money (but not very much) on financial/currency transactions because it does not affect severely the number or value of such speculative deals. It thereby does not enhance financial stability. OR, it raises even less money because it acts as a real disincentive to speculation.

    I also think that campaigning against income inequality is politically better than Tobin or Robin Hood taxes. It allows a political party to raise a whole number of issues about inequality in other aspects as well, such as housing, health, unemployment and racism and sexism etc. If no-one was allowed to earn more than, say, £70,000 that would have a big effect on the amount of financial speculation anyhow!

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