Colm Murphy provides a detailed analysis of the historical context behind Labour's 2015 leadership election split. [Note: This article was originally published on 31/07/15]
For starters, it has just suffered a resounding electoral defeat. In May 2015, Labour floundered in England, decayed in its working class strongholds and was utterly destroyed by a triumphant Scottish National Party over the border. Its performance was even worse than in the 2010 election, which followed thirteen years of power and two wars. Moreover, the party has had no time to recover as the dust settles on this catastrophe. It has been plunged immediately into a drawn-out leadership contest between Andy Burnham, Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, after the prompt resignation of Ed Miliband.
Those hoping for a calm, considered response to defeat from the party have been let down. We are faced with the unedifying spectacle of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition tearing itself apart, a fate it avoided five years ago. The “debate”, so widely called-for and welcomed, has been poisoned by acrimony, score-settling and vitriol. Through the press and among the commentariat, the centrist supporters of Liz Kendall and the left-wing backers of Jeremy Corbyn have been hacking strips off each other. As if this wasn’t enough, the ghost of the Blair-Brown power struggle has also re-emerged in the loaded rhetoric of the four campaigns.
While the party implodes, the new Conservative government has been left free to enact policies Labourites almost universally loathe, such as unprecedented union-busting and cuts to tax credits, while colonising and appropriating popular left-wing policies such as the Living Wage. Add a perceived lack of imagination and the collective panicking of the establishment at the apparent surge in support for Corbyn’s hard-left candidacy, and the result is a party left hopeless, confused, and divided.
Some of these problems are unique to the UK in 2015, notably the situation north of the border. Yet, many are not, sharing notable parallels across the Anglosphere, particularly in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
This is not the first time Labour has been out of power and deeply factionalised. As many on the left are fond of saying, it was good ol’ Karl who once made the observation that history repeats itself. It remains to be seen if this latest iteration of ‘Labour in opposition’ is a tragedy, a farce or something else entirely. Moreover, it also remains to be seen if Labour’s past is as illuminating as some believe.
Parallels. Continuities. Similarities.
Firstly, the obvious must be stated: the British Labour Party has spent most of its history in opposition, even after it supplanted the Liberal Party in the 1920s. During its many long bouts of powerlessness, for instance 1931-45, 1951-64 and 1979-1997, the party was often divided, and on several occasions looked like it might be doomed.
These divisions were on different issues, often reflecting the political, social and cultural context of the time, but there are some common patterns. Since the 1930s, there have been repeated attempts to draw the party to the “left” of its time period, leading to division, before the party adapts to new circumstances and succeeds. This adapting has sometimes involved accepting opposition arguments, but not always. Recurring themes also include a perennial thorn in the side for Labour – winning middle class support – as well as the legacies of austerity and divides over defence policy.
For example, in the 1930s, after briefly tasting power under MacDonald, Labour faced a “decade of disappointment” (Thorpe), and split along ideological lines. The Independent Labour Party, one of the intellectual and socialist wings of the party, even believed the party had become a hindrance to the progress of socialism, and that the death of capitalism was imminent after the Great Depression. Thus, in 1932, it voted to disaffiliate.
However, capitalism and the Labour Party survived. Many deserted the ILP to remain in the fold, and it was reduced to a third of its membership. Labour remained the centre of gravity on the left, although it failed to put forward an alternative that the electorate found inspiring until after the Second World War.
After the much-celebrated postwar governments fell in 1951, the party was once more cleaved in twain and faced problems from left-wing malcontents. A rising Labour right, the postwar Labour establishment and revisionists such as Hugh Gaitksell were battling a newly rebellious Nye Bevan – who repeatedly defied the whip in the early 1950s on issues such as rearming West Germany. Bevan and Gaitskell also had history: the former had resigned from the cabinet only a couple of years before, after the latter had introduced NHS prescription charges in his Budget. The situation degenerated to the extent that senior figures discussed expelling Bevan, one of Labour’s most distinguished politicians, best remembered as the founder of the NHS.
The 1950s were also a period of intellectual malaise for the party. It did not know what to do in the face of a Conservative Party that had accepted their successful policies, such as full employment and the welfare state, but was garnering popularity by, for instance, phasing out rationing. It became harder to attack the Conservatives as outdated and ignorant of the electorate’s desires, as it did in 1945, when some of Labour’s most popular innovations had now been embraced. Much of this has contemporary parallels. Osborne’s (arguably chimerical) seizing of ‘Living Wage’ badge and of Labour’s non-dom abolition policy have left the leadership unsure and reeling, while new ideas (such as Blue Labour) remain controversial and, some would say, inadequate.
Yet it is the early 1980s, and in particular the Benn-Healey deputy leadership contest, that could be the most pertinent.
Acrimonious leadership debates
In 1995, a series of documentaries were broadcast on BBC2 called The Wilderness Years. During the second episode, a Labour MP Joe Ashton was asked to comment on the Party’s state in 1981. He observed that it was the early days of Thatcher’s controversial premiership, marked by increasing unemployment, cuts to student grants, a government “doing horrific things to the NHS” and the Brixton riots. In short, it was a time when an effective opposition was desperately needed.
Yet, he complained that Labour were not challenging the government adequately, and instead were distracted and “obsessed for six months” with an internal battle – the deputy leadership contest of 1981. In light of recent events, much of this seems eerily familiar.
The parallels are deeper. Acrimony and ideological splits ravaged the party throughout the 1980s. This Deputy Leadership contest, between left-winger Tony Benn and Denis Healey of the Labour Right, marked a particularly low point of unity. The leader Michael Foot, the mainstream union bosses and most of the Parliamentary Party did not even want Benn to run.
As if the deputy leadership wasn’t enough, the party had already split over changes to its constitution. In that debate, which concerned changes to party democracy that reduced the voting power of the largely moderate PLP, the Bennites had emerged victorious. More power was given to the largely leftist CLPs. This partly caused the ‘Gang of Four’ of Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers to (literally) split the party and create the SDP after the ‘Limehouse Declaration’, condemning the “drift towards extremism” as incompatible with Labour’s democratic traditions. In this context, the leadership did not want another civil war.
They were to be sorely disappointed. Healey and his allies on the right hated Benn’s “destructive innocence” (Healey), and many were appalled by the disruption and heckling from many of Benn’s supporters in the subsequent contest. Public meetings at which Healey spoke were broken up, and party protests against unemployment were disrupted, by ardent grassroots Bennites. This alienated traditional figures on the right such as Roy Hattersley, but even MPs on the left of the party. Among the horrified left-wingers was Neil Kinnock, future Leader, who reportedly even had a physical fight with an ardent Bennite in the toilets after the result was announced.
Some in Labour’s right today would compare this type of behaviour with the actions of Corbyn’s supporters. Luke Akehurst, writing for the activist’s Bible LabourList, recently protested his treatment and what he calls a “torrent of online abuse” from Corybn supporters. The older Labour Right differs from the post-New Labour centrists in many respects, but perhaps they share this aversion to ‘robust’ political debate. However, many on the left accuse the right of doing the same thing – creating factional disputes. The group Progress is often a target of their acrimony. Currently, it seems that the very unity of the party, which Ed Miliband managed to maintain, is under severe threat.
Yet, this is not the whole story. Undeniably, Benn inspired scores of people, and had strong grassroots support from both party activists and union members. Healey started out as the strong favourite but ended up winning with less than 1% of a lead. Thorpe argues that many on the Left were convinced, given rising unemployment and inflation, that the public would be much more sympathetic to full-blooded socialism. At the time, inflation had peaked at 21.9% in 1980, and unemployment had doubled since Labour was unceremoniously ejected from office in 1979.
This assumption is generally derided in the aftermath of the New Labour victory in 1997. However, Chris Mullin, ex-MP and author of A Very British Coup, maintained in 1995 that if Benn had become leader in the early 1980s, Labour might have regained power sooner. One supporter interviewed in the same documentary argued that “people were excited and enthused…here was a senior national politician specifically taking up issues of poverty, of common ownership, of industrial policy”.
That supporter, funnily enough, was a much younger Jeremy Corbyn.
Today, Corbyn has captured the imaginations of many on the left, particularly the younger and newer arrivals to the party. He has also gained support from swathes of party members. For example, he has amassed the highest number of nominations from constituency parties, the party activists, and has drawn the support of over hundreds of councillors, and several trade unions. Most recently, a YouGov poll shocked the party establishment by giving Corbyn a 17 point lead over his nearest rival, Andy Burnham.
Which Tony haunts Labour?
What happened next, to a very large extent, casts a shadow over current debates.
Here’s one version of the tale: the Bennites ultimately lost the day. Labour’s swing to the left led to the Bennite-inflected 1983 manifesto, famously dubbed the “longest suicide note in history”. Labour was destroyed in that election, and it is often argued that this was partly due to the manifesto’s alienating leftist radicalism and principled but unpopular policies (such as unilateral disarmament and immediate withdrawal from the European Economic Community).
What often comes next in this version of the story is New Labour’s rise, and Labour’s subsequent electoral success. As the cry of “modernisation” became ever louder, and as Kinnock gave way to Smith and, importantly, Blair-Brown, Labour deliberately ceded ideological ground to the opposition in order to gain power. It underwent an ugly purging phase, during which it expelled entryist militants and saw Kinnock, the Labour leader, publicly condemn a Labour council at a party conference. Symbolically, this process culminated under Blair with the abolition of Clause IV, which called for the “common ownership of the means of production”.
Blair’s subsequent success in 1997 leads some in the party to argue that Labour cannot dig in ideologically, but rather must adapt in order to survive. Crucially, they argue, this will allow Labour to gain power and actually change society for the better. Supporters of Liz Kendall in particular have argued in this fashion, as has Harriet Harman. Reportedly, she rebuked Burnham in a recent shadow cabinet meeting: Burnham called for stronger opposition to austerity, receiving the acid response from Harman: “We lost that argument; you may have noticed that we lost the election.”
Given this, it helps their case that Labour’s turns to the left following electoral defeat have generally been followed by further failure. It is in the interests of those on the moderate and right wings of the party to cite this history, particularly the 1980s decade. Hence, it is probably no coincidence that The Wilderness Years documentary has been recently shared or retweeted on Twitter by Yvette Cooper supporter and tireless anti-Corbyn campaigner Luke Akehurst, and by Kendall backer Hopi Sen.
But are things different now?
This narrative can be simplistically and uncritically retold. We should note the hodgepodge, confused nature of the 1983 manifesto, the post-Falklands Tory surge, the personal unpopularity of Foot and the disastrous, gaffe-ridden course of that campaign when we consider Labour’s failure. The 1983 result was not a straight-forward Middle England rejection of socialism.
Rehashing the past is also not necessarily a panacea. Many argue that repackaged Blairism and a shift to the centre, a perception scores have of Progress and Kendall, isn’t the answer either. Not all of them are old-fashioned Trotskyites: the economist Chris Dillow cites new problems for the modern economy, such as “secular stagflation” and “managerialism”, and argues that this requires new solutions beyond the old debates of state and market.
Meanwhile, supporters of Corbyn argue that, as the barnstorming speech of the SNP’s Mhairi Black went viral, and given the public support for policies like renationalisation of the railways, there is a public appetite for radicalism. One is reminded of Mullin’s confidence in Benn, should he have been elected leader. Politicos must be wary of the misleading indicator of online popularity, and the echo-chamber effect. Milifandom did not translate into a 2015 Labour victory, and a majority in favour of railway renationalisation is unlikely to lead to a landslide in 2020 on its own. Still, others argue that the SNP’s success, and the fact Labour has decayed in its working class strongholds for a decade, means that a metropolitan, central-liberal turn would be disastrous and that populist, explicitly left-wing policies could have traction.
It remains to be proven that the solution in the 1990s is the right solution for the 21st century.
History as an unconscious tool
As this contest has developed, partisans have begun using Labour’s troubled history in their arguments and campaign material. Deputy leadership candidate Caroline Flint recently cited the 1979 deselection debates in a campaign email to voters, and a returning Tony Blair has tried to use his participation in the 1983 election as proof that he is a loyal Labourite. The history of British Labour permeates this leadership election.
Without realising it, candidates and supporters may be approaching the thorny question of ‘What now?’ with embedded and debatable historical assumptions: on the electability of Tony Benn and Nye Bevan; on the root causes of the 18 impotent ‘wilderness years’; or on the controversial personality of Tony Blair. So, some knowledge of Labour’s history could be most useful to the neutrals in the factional debate: those who have a vote but have not yet aligned themselves to a particular candidate. An awareness of Benn, Kinnock, Healey, Gaitskell, Crosland, Bevan and the rest may just allow the voter to cut through the rhetoric of these campaigns, and get to the core questions.
Perhaps then they can elect a good leader.