The election of Jeremy Corbyn seems to suggest that the way forward for the political left is through the Labour Party.
I remember back to a winter’s evening in the mid 1980s when Vladimir Derer addressed a meeting in the Exeter City Library. The gathering wasn’t heavily attended, with only a handful of Labour left people from Exeter and the south Devon area, plus a couple of activists from the non-Labour Party sects, communist and Trotskyist. Derer had already passed the height of his influence and the majority of Exeter Labour Party had by then already turned their back on him.
To the younger generation today, Derer’s name and work are not well-known; yet in the 1970s and early 1980s he was the organisational driving force behind the move to the left in Labour Party. Earlier, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Labour Party had been comfortably in the grip of leaders who pursued mild social amelioration from inside the Parliamentary party. But by the early 1970s several things had changed: economic growth had faltered, so hard choice about who got what had to be made; power in the trade unions had partially shifted to radical shop stewards; and the constituency Labour Parties were gaining an influx of young left-wingers. The situation was ripe for change.
Derer believed that the key to socialist reform lay in and through the Labour Party. His thesis was both articulate and simple: in the advanced capitalist countries no new socialist parties had emerged as a significant political force since the formation of the Third International in the 1920s, and therefore effective socialist activity could only take place inside the prevailing party of the centre-left, by which he meant the Labour Party in Britain. Opportunities (not opportunism), he argued, were few and far between and had to be seized when available. Such an opportunity was now presenting itself.
The problem, though, with the Labour Party left in the 1970s was that it ranged from left-wing social democrats though to revolutionary Trotskyite groups, so building a unity based on policy was impractical. Yet, the party could be moved leftwards by democratisation: if the rank and file elected and controlled the leadership, then the result would a left-wing party. To that end the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy was formed in 1973 and Derer became its secretary in 1974. The drive to the left was by means of an intra-party struggle for party democracy.
The left reached its peak of influence in the Party in 1980. In 1981 the tide turned: Tony Benn failed in his attempt to take the deputy leadership and the right regained control of the Party’s National Executive Committee. Though the final reckoning wasn’t fully apparent until a few years later, the left had lost the fight for the Labour Party; and the steady march to the right had begun.
The lean years for the left 1983-2015
The third of a century leading up to sudden and unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in September 2015 was one of almost continual and progressive defeat for the left inside the party. There were two phases of defeat. The first was under the leadership of Neil Kinnock (1983-92) plus the short reign of John Smith (1992-94) in which the divide in the Labour party was mainly about alternative economic policies. Labour’s right believed, economic conditions permitting, in taxing, spending and regulating to ameliorate the conditions of working people. The left believed economic power (nationalisation and worker’s control) was needed to change the ways of capitalism, if not to abolish capitalism all together. But some kind of compromise between the two positions was theoretically possible, even if difficult to achieve. Though the role of the left diminished, particularly after the 1987 election defeat, the left still possessed a minor influence over policy.
The second period began in 1994 with arrival of Tony Blair and the birth of New Labour. Social democracy and redistribution were thrown out in favour of full acceptance of unbridled market capitalism. Working people were to be slotted into capitalism and not have resources re-directed to them; public provision in health education and elsewhere was to be provided by private capital and private management. Labour in government after 1997 saw a bonfire of everything traditional Labour, left or right, had ever stood for: the acceptance of growing inequality, with Blair flaunting his and New Labour’s relationship with the super-rich; a love affair with the far right around the globe which led to Britain eagerly following President Bush into the Iraq War in 2003; and at home New Labour oversaw a growing illiberalism manifesting itself in an expansion police powers and a diminution of civil liberties.
Life inside the Labour Party fundamentally changed, too. Since the eighties, but particularly since the arrival of Blair and New Labour in 1994, the Party structures were de-democratised, conferences choreographed from above; meaningless forms of consultation replaced intra-party elections. Worse still, the Left vacated the Party leaving a membership consisting mainly of municipal careerists and their hangers-on. Outside the ranks of Labour, no new left-wing Party established itself, even after Labour abandoned social democracy in the 1990s. The Green Party remained fixed in a niche partly of its own making; and George Galloway’s ephemeral Respect Party was both a parody and betrayal of socialist values. So when Labour lost office in 2010, with its lowest share of the poll since 1983, it was empty and irrelevant in the face of the financial crisis that had engulfed Britain and the world since 2008.
The Corbyn revival
In 2010 Labour had its first contested leadership election for sixteen years. In a feeble reaction against the excesses of New Labourism, its members – and particularly its trade union members - opted for Ed as opposed to David Miliband. The new leader proved not just personally ineffective, but also surrounded himself by a team of people like himself who had made their careers during New Labour’s neo-liberal years in government. For this reason, the Labour leadership were utterly hamstrung in their ability to stand up for working people, and went into the 2015 election without any clear message and lost. Ed Miliband resigned as leader within hours of defeat.
The right had ruled the labour Party for decades unchallenged and had grown complacent. In a move to weaken the trade unions, the election of the leader was turned into a direct vote of all party members, registered Labour trade unionists and any Labour supporter who paid £3. The veteran left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn who had entered Parliament in 1983 just managed to get onto the ballot paper and then unexpectedly went on to win with 59% of the vote. New Labour was slapped in the face by Corbyn-supporting party members, who had been sidelined for years, but still harboured progressive thoughts. Corbyn also won among trade unionists, manual and non manual in both the public and private sectors. Workers were fed up; they had been told for years to hang onto New Labour, even though despised them, lest things be worse for them under the Tories. And finally new ranks of Corbyn activists sprang up among the educated young, whose educational debts and abysmal prospects in housing and employment consigned them to a life of misery.
Furious at Corbyn’s election to the leadership, a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party did all they could to destabilise him: a series a staged resignations from his shadow cabinet and a vote of no confidence in him, culminating in a leadership challenge by Owen Smith. The NEC did all it could to bias the election against Corbyn: 130 000 new party members, disproportionally Corbyn supporters, were denied a vote, thousands more were expelled or suspended for any number of dubious reasons. Yet, Corbyn triumphed, boosting his vote to 62%. And though the right-wing, by bureaucratic manoeuvring, has managed to keep control of the NEC, nonetheless today the Left is a powerful force in the Labour Party, and has a reasonable chance of taking control of it.
And Vladimir Derer
Vladimir Derer died in June 2014, so like Tony Benn who had passed away three months earlier, he never saw the election of victory of Jeremy Corbyn. Yet all the evidence points to his vindication. Left activism is more effective inside Labour than outside it: and it was to Labour that progressive people turned after 2015, not to smaller left parties or to new parties. The proof will never be final but today seems to prove the correctness of an analysis penned by Derer four decades earlier.