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One of the world’s great left wing movements, the British Labour Party, has just re-elected Jeremy Corbyn from the extreme left as its leader. He won an increased majority. A clear majority of people eligible to vote in the party election say they believe he is the man to lead them to national victory.  I suspect the opposite – that he will lead them to electoral oblivion and possibly even cause the party to split with large sections moving to a new centrist party. I’ve written in the past about how for some hard left Labour members the important thing is to have a hard left party, not to be in power.

The last time the Labour Party was tearing itself apart was the early 1980s shortly after the Conservative Party embarked on 18 years of government and shortly before some members left to form a new party which ultimately failed to gain traction in the country. It was, as would be any new centrist party, stymied by the UK’s first past the post electoral system. Labour’s problems then with an entryist movement called ‘Militant’ are similar to those now although the current situation is arguably more advanced given that the party leadership is now controlled by the hard left and intends, quite understandably, to grip the entire party.

Below, I reproduce a letter a young Tony Blair MP wrote to his then Labour leader Michael Foot in 1982 after reading a book titled ‘Debts of Honour’. Put to one side negative, or indeed positive, emotions about Mr Blair,and examine his ideas.

I have edited out some of the letter simply for brevity, but the thrust of it is intact.

Dear Michael…

The first thing that struck me about Debts of Honour was the prison of ignorance which my generation has constructed for itself. How many of us have read Haslitt, Paine, Brailsford or even Swift (apart from Gulliver’s Travels) in the original? And it’s not the fact of scholarship or a case of educated oneupmanship. Bruce Page (former editor of the New Statesman) always littered everything he wrote with references and quotations from obscure literati, politicians, churchmen etc but one never felt enlightened by it. These were just vast piles of learning heaped on the reader’s plate till he felt positively bilious…..

It has shown me how narrow is our source of modern political inspiration. Look at Thatcher and Tebbit and how they almost take pride in the rigid populism of their political thought…..Even in our own party (though to a much lesser degree) there is a tendency against letting the mind roam free. In this I can’t help feeling the continual assertion of Marxism with Socialism is in part to blame. Like many middle class people I came to Socialism through Marxism (to be more specific through Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky). The trouble with Marxism is that it is fine if you make it your political servant but terrible if it becomes your political master.

I actually did trouble to read Marx first hand. I found it illuminating in so many ways; in particular, my perception of the relationship between people and the society in which they live, was irreversibly altered. But ultimately it was stifling because it sought to embrace in its philosophy every facet of existence. That of course is its attraction to many. It gives them a total perspective on life. But that can simply become an excuse to stop searching for the truth.

Political thought did not begin nor shall it end with Marx. Yet it is impossible to understand the 30-40 age group in today’s Labour Party without understanding the pervasiveness of Marxist teaching. For me, at university, left-wing politics was Marx and the liberal tradition was either scorned or analysed only in terms of its influence on Marx. It is so abundantly plain when I read Debts of Honour that there is a treasure trove of ideas that I never imagined existed. We need to recover the searching radicalism of these people and the breadth of vision they had.

…our left is in danger of falling prey to its perennial fault: introspection. There are many of us who were highly critical of the last Labour government who are tired now of retracing incessantly that same old ground. I know that in the Labour Coordinating Committee (of which I am a member), there are many who have that feeling. There is an arrogance and self-righteousness about many of the groups on the far left which is deeply unattractive to the ordinary would-be member: and a truly absurd gulf between the subject matter and language of the legion of pamphlets they write, and the people for whom the pamphlets are supposed to be written. There’s too much mixing only with people with whom they agree. I wonder sometimes whether they would prefer to address a meeting of the converted than the unconverted. I can honestly say that I am at my happiest addressing people that don’t necessarily agree but are willing to listen.

That’s important inside and outside of the Party. Democracy isn’t just about the right to express your views, but the right also to have them listened to.

…What I am saying is that the spirit of Debts of Honour is precisely what we need in the Labour Party at the moment. I’ve no right whatever to do this, but if you’ve struggled this far, I don’t suppose you’ll mind! If I were writing your speech at conference this year, I would make the following points:

(1) On Militant, I would say this. No one has an inalienable right, irrespective of their political views or actions, to belong to the Labour Party. We have a constitution and we have firm principles upon which that constitution is founded. Those principles are the achievement of socialism and the achievement of it, by the Party, through Parliament.

It is a rule of our constitution that there should not be organisations operating within the Party with their own programme, principles and policy i.e. there should not be a party within a party. That is a correct and necessary rule, not a constitutional accident. Without it, you will find organisations pursuing aims within the party inconsistent with the party’s principles and pursuing them in a way that diverts the party’s attention and undermines its will and effectiveness.

To tolerate that would not merely be wrong within the constitution it would be unfair to the party’s ordinary members: the rest of the party would be vulnerable to the organisational manoeuvres of the sect. So it is nonsense to say that Militant or any other group has a right to exist in the Party; or that it is undemocratic to set limits to their activities. Quite the opposite; if a sect is acting outside the constitution and pursuing aims contrary to the principles of that constitution, it would be undemocratic not to stop them….

The reason there is an attempt, an intellectually dishonest attempt, to divert people in the Party from a discussion of Militant is that once the facts about Militant are examined, the true role of that sect and its activity is plain. The NEC found it was plain.

Where will you see in the speeches proposing the “no witch-hunt” resolutions, a consideration of the fact that Militant have 34 regional organisers working full-time, whose remit and instructions we know nothing about; the fact that Militant policy is decided by a central committee who meet in private and issue instructions by diktat to the Militant members; the fact that Militant hold annual conferences from which ordinary party members are banned; the fact that Militant was born with a policy of “entryism” into the Party; the fact that their avowed primary sources of inspiration are Lenin and Trotsky, people who no matter how mighty in their own way, derided the notion of socialism through Parliament, which is a notion fundamental to our beliefs?

…. In other words, I think that we should go on the attack. I truly believe that it is Militant and others that are the anti-democrats. Why then allow them a monopoly of socialist virtue? I also think the whole question of the 1950s and the spectre of purges is misleading. Historical analogies can be superficially attractive, but on close analysis, plain wrong. You knew Bevan as well as any. Were you and his supporters really like the ultra-left of today? Would he, in his battle for the deputy leadership really have sat silent though the quite horrendous (in some places) practices of TB’s ultra supporters last year, and refused to condemn?

…I would appeal, too, for a sense of purpose in the Party. We have a duty much higher than the duty to any grouping or tendency or section of opinion within the Party. It is a duty we owe to the people in our country, to save them from a cruel and bigoted government, that has made disaster and despair a fact of their everyday lives. Over the past two years, we have set an example to the country of how an opposition should not behave; we must now set an example of how it should behave.

,,,Above all, let democratic debate be democratic; put your views calmly and listen with an open mind to your opponent.

Anyhow, many apologies for going on at such length. I expect I will reconsider sending this on re-reading it.

With best wishes,

Tony Blair”

A year later Mr Foot oversaw a general election manifesto considered hard left and out of touch with the electorate. It was dubbed ‘The longest suicide note in history’ and Labour was hammered in the polls. Mrs Thatcher was returned to power, and the Conservative Party remained in government until a still young Tony Blair MP modernized Labour and became Prime Minster in 1997 – 15 years after he wrote the above letter. If there is a huge split in the Labour party, as opposed to the splinter of the 80s, with the majority of the soft left and centre left leaving, then history won’t repeat itself, but this second time around it will be a farce.



10 Comments on "Labour: Back to No Future?"

  1. mahatmacoatmabag | 24th September 2016 at 7:30 pm | Reply

    Let us rejoice & give praise on the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader & may he remain Labour leader till the 2020 General Election in order to lead Labour to its biggest ever loss of seats in the Commons since that black day that the Labour party came into existence to blight our land, ruin our economy, destroy our social values and morality & subjugate our people with conquest by alien cultures from the 3rd world. Full disclosure: I am not a Labour voter (please regard this as political satire)

  2. I know every generation likes to point out the shallowness of the next one, but this just shows how Tony Blair was in class of his own among Labour politicians.
    As for Corbyn: he will be given his chance to lose in 2020, and it’s what comes after that’s important.

  3. A party that stands for something but is unelectable or a party that seeks power for powers sake with no ideals, that seems to be the stark choice for traditional Labour voters. I actually don’t consider Corbyn to be hard left in the global scheme of things, that you refer to him as such Tim shows how far right the centre point of British politics now lies. The Labour MP’s that brought about this farce need to take a good look at themselves and what they have done to their own organisation, they have gone from polling neck and neck with the Conservatives prior to the leadership challenge to anywhere from 6-14 points behind. Personally I find it very hard to feel sorry for this group of people who inherited a growing economy with low debt levels and proceeded to oversee a tripling in house prices,a surge in immigration which led to so much bitterness and a meltdown in the nations financial situation. As for Foot, it was the Falklands war that sealed his fate as the polling data shows in the huge swing between late March and June 82. His policies didn’t help but from the day Port Stanley was liberated there was only one winner in that race. In the same way only a global economic meltdown and horrendous Brexit can prevent May from winning in 2020.

  4. Labour unelectable? Maybe, it depends on how and why the people vote.

    Some will vote for the party, Labour born and bred or once a Tory always a Tory. These people will never change their vote.

    Some will vote for the person, either they know the candidate or they like the party leader. Decisions like this are not based on political science but on personality and it can work both ways, voting for candidate B because you don’t like candidate A.

    Then there are those like me who vote according to their conscience. It’s been a long time since I voted in a UK election but when I did I voted for the Socialist Labour candidate. I KNOW that the guy didn’t stand a chance in hell of winning the seat but I voted according to my political beliefs.

    So, what will happen at the next UK General Election when the Facebook generation hold that little pencil in their hand? Some of them will vote Labour for all of the reasons above and then the UK will have to accept the consequences for the next five years. That’s democracy, that’s the way that things are supposed to work and I’m grateful because the alternative is either a North Korean style ballot with only one candidate or no ballot at all.

    Full disclosure: UK citizen now living and working in Germany, and a proud Marxist

  5. mahatmacoatmabag | 25th September 2016 at 5:27 pm | Reply

    Peter re: proud Marxist, you wont find this in Das Kapital :Proverbs 16:18
    ” Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

  6. I have always voted Labour until Corbyn took the reins but cannot do so while he and his momentum friends take the party in a nasty direction. Everything about the Labour leadership worries me. After the tragic murder of Jo Cox have we not learnt a thing? We have a shadow chancellor John McDonnell who thinks it’s perfectly ok to say that a Conservative MP should be lynched and that she is a stain on humanity. Is this the kinder gentler politics Labour talk about?

    I read today about a good hardworking Labour Councillor Claire Jeffrey has had to resign from the labour Party. She spoke out on Twitter about suffering abuse for more than two years and having been spat on and her children left terrified. What is this all about? Is this now acceptable in Britain in 2016? I post the article in case anyone doubts my words

    It is shameful that some on the left cannot even mention Tony Blair without hissing and spitting .Like any politician he made mistakes but he led Labour to 3 Election victories. Some on the extreme left are anti-western anti-American anti-Israel pro unilateral nuclear disarmament and seem to have an affinity more with those who hate our way of life than the people they are meant to serve.

    This is not the Labour party I grew up with of Wilson, Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Harman even Miliband .I do blame Miliband for giving power to a few hundred thousand members who do not represent most of the voters. I believe Tim is right, Corbyn will do a Michael foot and lead Labour into electoral oblivion. Whether this time they can ever recover is debateable.

    • Paul, John Mcdonnell did not say that Esther Mcvey should be lynched and had he done so he would currently by facing charges of incitement. What he did say was:

      “I was up in Liverpool a fortnight ago where Alec McFadden, one of our (union) organisers, launched the Sack Esther McVey Day on her birthday.
      “I spoke at a packed public meeting … there was a whole group in the audience that completely kicked off quite critical of the whole concept, because they were arguing ‘Why are we sacking her? Why aren’t we lynching the bastard?'”

      When asked to apologise in the commons for repeating the lynching remark he said.

      “This has been raised before. It was accepted by the House that in no way would I ever encourage violence or support violence against an honourable member.
      “Therefore there is nothing for me to apologise for.
      “If a constituent shouts something out to an MP that is a matter for the constituent.
      “This is the honourable member for Wirral West trying to make herself into a victim in this issue.
      “I was simply putting it in the context of the suffering that has been caused by the honourable member for Wirral West.”
      He was interrupted a number of times by Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing, who told him to stick to the point.
      But he continued: “The substance of the matter is there is nothing to apologise for and I hope the electorate on May 7 will remove the stain of inhumanity.

      Now Mcdonnell probably does think that Esther Mcvey is a stain on humanity but that isn’t what he actually said. I find it grossly hypocritical when people apologise for things they actually mean just to get off the hook so in my view Mcdonnell did the right thing in not apologising on Peston on Sunday.

  7. I have voted Labour simply because the respective MPs in the two constituencies I have lived in (admittedly Labour heartlands) have supported, as well as instituted initiatives that have benefited the respective communities. No more.

    Let’s make it clear. Momentum are interested only in the politics and power, not in the UK and British people. They are a carbon-copy of the miserable wretches who brought Liverpool to its knees in the 80’s via Militant. They are the type of people who would engender unrest, and while the people were marching at their command, would loot the shops.

    The state of Mr Corbyn’s worthless leadership, mandated by a rent-a-mob crowd, was demonstrated clearly today (Tuesday 27th September) in his Labour conference interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg – he did not answer a single one of her questions directly.

    The current Labour leadership – with the exception of perhaps Tom Watson, would be hilarious if they weren’t do dangerous and so totally disingenuous. They serve no one except themselves.

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