British Labour Party - how the right wing gained control

It is fashionable today among some on the left to refer to some golden age of "old labour". They use this to argue that in the past it was a workers' party but now it is no longer. The Blairites on the other hand claim that the party was too "left-wing" to be elected. But there has never been such a golden age. If you look at the record of Labour governments, they have all been responsible for cutting living standards and carrying out an imperialist foreign policy.

The Blairites claim that Blair and his right wing policies made Labour electable. The defeats of the 1980s led many activists to despair. However the conclusion that dominance of the Party by the left was responsible for the defeats needs careful scrutiny, as it is completely at odds with the facts. Like all other aspects of history, the story of the 1980s has been written by the so-called victors and what actually happened needs to be investigated.

How the reforms in the Party were reversed

Neil Kinnock was elected leader after the catastrophic election defeat in 1983. Under Kinnock's leadership the Party was transformed and dropped most of the left-wing policies which had been adopted in the 1970s and 1980s. Much of the centralised regime of the Blair years had already been set up by the time Kinnock left office. Crucial to this was the reversal of the democratic gains made by the left and the restoration of power to the shadow cabinet, in which there was a right-wing majority. Kinnock installed a Shadow Communications Agency, comprising of many of the figures to be in the forefront of New Labour in the 1990s - Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown. In 1986 Peter Mandelson was appointed as Director of Campaigns Communications. This inner circle came to have more power than the Party's National Executive Committee. The whole structure of the Party apparatus was ‘reformed' so that full time staff worked for the Leader, not the Party. These people campaigned to change Party policy on tax, trades union reform, re-nationalisation and unilateral nuclear disarmament. This was all achieved over the course of the 1980s.

How was all this achieved, considering the growth of the left in the previous period? Firstly the Party had never been under the complete control of the left. Secondly the left itself was divided. The traditional left, around Tribune had effectively been taken over by right wingers. By the 1980s it comprised 50% of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The so-called 'soft left' included people like David Blunkett and Michael Meacher. They aided Kinnock in his internal battles with the 'hard left', which included supporters of the Marxist newspaper the 'Militant' and also the so-called 'loony left', which included leaders of Labour Councils in Lambeth and Islington and Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council. The emergence of the ‘soft left' completely changed the balance of power within the Party.

Once the right wing had the National Organisation of Labour Students firmly in their hands, it was used to counter-balance the Labour Party Young Socialists which supported the policies of the Marxists gathered around the 'Militant'.

The drift to the right by the Labour leadership aided the Thatcher government in its attacks on the labour movement. The 1984/85 miners' strike was supported by the Labour Party, but not by Kinnock, who sat on the fence. The defeat of this strike which was a watershed in the class struggle in Britain was not inevitable, but it was to change the political landscape in Britain for decades.

Similarly the Labour leadership not only refused to support Labour Councils who were campaigning against rate-capping and to implement the policies on which they were elected, but attacked them. Liverpool and Lambeth Councils and the Greater London Council had different approaches to their campaigns against the Tories, but all attracted popular support (which the Kinnock leadership was still failing to do). Many of the equal opportunities policies for which the GLC was lambasted by the Tories and criticised for by the Labour leadership, have now become mainstream ‘welcoming diversity' issues. But that wasn't the point. The right needed issues on which to attack the left. Thus a major witch hunt was launched against ‘Militant' supporters in the Party and other left- wingers, using the same kangaroo court, the National Constitutional Committee, (set up by Labour's NEC) which was later used against MP George Galloway for his stand on the Iraq war.

Defeats for the labour movement on the industrial front and in local government augmented the power of the ‘modernisers', as they came to be called. Their policies of accommodating to what was acceptable to British capitalism became a self fulfilling prophecy. Resistance was seen as futile. Kinnock invented the term ‘dented shield' as a strategy for Labour local authorities, meaning accommodation with the Tories, rather than confrontation.

Membership of trades unions declined as jobs were lost through the destruction of industries such as mining. The sale of council houses was undermining Labour's traditional power bases. Some of this was deliberate gerrymandering, as in the borough of Westminster where council flats were done up and sold to potential affluent Tory voters. This of course was used as evidence by the ‘modernisers', some of whom claimed that Labour could never win an election again and it was time to do a deal with the Liberals.

What is new about New Labour?

To be successful in carrying out these reforms in the Party it was critical that Kinnock should have roots within the labour movement and the full support of the trades union movement.

In spite of his shift to the right which was supposed to make the party attractive to the electorate (according to their own thinking), Kinnock and his inner circle failed to make Labour electable in 1987 and 1992. Even after the Tory defeat on their flagship policy of the poll-tax and the subsequent removal of Thatcher, Kinnock who had failed to endorse the anti-poll tax campaign, could not win an election! But, again, that was not the main aim of this clique. The point was that it had been successful in reversing many of the democratic changes within the Party.

Kinnock and Labour lost the 1992 election, despite all the counter-reforms. Kinnock was forced to resign as Party leader and John Smith took his place. Smith was another right winger, but had a different consensual style, consulting with the trades unions and others within the Party. In September 1992 the Tories' economic credibility was shot to pieces as the pound bombed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The Tory Chancellor Lamont lobbed billions of pounds (money that could have been spent on schools and hospitals) at the foreign exchanges to no avail. Labour under John Smith took a commanding lead in the opinion polls, and stayed there till Smith died in May 1994. It is simply untrue that Blair ‘made Labour electable.' It remains the case that the few real reforms introduced by the Labour government over the past ten years (such as the minimum wage) were adopted as policy under John Smith.

Smith's untimely death meant that Blair, a dogmatic ‘moderniser' became Party leader as part of a neoliberal coup by Blair, Brown and Mandelson to change the face of the Labour Party altogether.

Blair coined the expression ‘New Labour'. He invented an ideological excuse for accommodation with capitalism, ‘the third way'. He successfully campaigned to have Clause 4, part 4 (calling for the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange) eliminated from the Labour Party constitution. Many of the policy changes were already in place. But Blair wanted more than that. He wanted to finish off the Labour Party and to detach it from its trades union roots.

The trades union influence within the Labour Party has declined. The loss of members due to job losses alone would account for that. As most of these jobs were lost in industry, the percentage of trades union members is now higher among white collar workers, who traditionally have not paid the political levy to the Party. Reforms such as OMOV (one member one vote) had the aim of limiting the influence of the trades union block vote.

It was John Smith who had initiated a culture of business donations. Labour millionaires like Lord Salisbury have given millions of pounds to the Party. Firms such as MacDonald's, even private health insurance companies, pay thousands of pounds for stalls at annual party conferences, whilst some campaigning groups cannot get a foot in the door.

Many of the rich Labour backers are a minority of self-made millionaires. They do not represent the British establishment as a whole. Their support is conditional on Blair and his clique maintaining overall control over the party and also keeping the trades unions at bay. In spite of the huge sums provided to the Blair leadership of the Labour Party, the bosses of Britain are still on course to provide much more funding to the Conservative Party. Also, in spite of these donations, the Labour Party remains financially in a mess. Blair's last years in office were mired in corruption scandals about ‘loans for lordships'. Trades union subscriptions have been the main source of revenue. Thus Blair's attempts to turn the Party into one of big business have failed.

What Blair did was to make Labour in office virtually indistinguishable from the Tories. Labour has been in government for more than ten years. Core working class voters are deeply disappointed and apathetic. Blair's real legacy is only part of the long right wing ascendancy inside the Party. He has done his utmost to destroy the best traditions of Labour of crusading for the poor and downtrodden. It is time to reclaim those traditions.

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