24 January 2017

Chesterfield Socialist Conference 1987

The Chesterfield Socialist Conference of 1987 attempted to revitalise the left in Britain. Instead it marked its demise.

The year 1987 was an important year, not just because I failed my driving test the day after Mrs Thatcher won her third term in office, but because – although I did not know it at the time – events that year would signal a speeding up in the collapse of the left in Britain.

In October 1987, the first Socialist Conference was held in Chesterfield, the mining constituency which Tony Been famously won in a byelection in 1984. Ralph Miliband described the conference, which brought together the Labour left with several outside groups and parties, as the biggest meeting of socialists since the Leeds Convention in 1918. Benn, Miliband and Eric Heffer all gave powerful orations in the hope of heralding in a rebirth of the radical left in British politics.

Yet, it was not to be. Kinnock (with Hattersley, Smith, Kaufmann and the then youngsters Blair and Brown in tow) announced a policy review, misnamed ‘Labour Listens’ which meant that the leadership listened to everybody except socialists. The remaining socialist policies were either dropped or sidelined. Inside the party de-democratisation took hold and the socialist left was marginalised or expelled. In this stifling atmosphere of party discipline, Kinnock stumbled on until losing to the Tories yet again in 1992.

John Smith’s leadership 1992-94 promised a Labour Party consolidation on the basis of some kind of mild social democracy – and, but for his death, he would have taken Labour to victory in 1997.

But that was not to be, either. In 1994 (the last contested Labour leadership election until 2010), desperate for success, Labour elected Tony Blair, whose drift to the right in the next decade and half would have been unimaginable in the early nineties. So New Labour was born and the Left and socialism ceased to be.

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