Standing Without Clapping – Assessing Corbyn’s Labour

Following its recent party conference, Labour’s stance now bears some similarities with its position at the 1945 general election. But we live in an entirely different nation surrounded by a much altered world. HARRY BARNES considers what the ’45 government achieved and what Corbyn’s party can learn from those years.

The Labour government of 1945 to 1951 created full employment and a welfare state, including the National Health Service; nationalised more than 20 per cent of industry; introduced the 1944 Education Act; made improvements in working class living standards; initiated a major council house building programme; and began the UK’s shift from Empire to Commonwealth.

Corbyn at conf 17 main

Democratic socialists often look back with pride on such achievements, even if they hold some reservations about its shortcomings. So what was the wider context that enabled the Labour government to achieve all this?

  1. Labour was bolstered by supportive attitudes widespread among groups of working class people as a result of their pre-war and war-time experiences.
  2. There was wide support for the 1942 Beveridge Report, which aimed to tackle the five giant evils of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease.
  3. Labour continued with fair shares policies such as rationing.
  4. Labour built on Keynesian economic techniques, including the stimulation of aggregate demand to tackle the dangers of recession.
  5. The UK received 26 per cent of the resources available under the Marshall Plan, which removed trade barriers – equivalent to US$32 billion today.
  6. The Bretton Woods agreement covering the USA, Canada, western Europe, Australia and Japan tied currencies to the Gold Standard while the  International Monetary Fund bridged temporary imbalances of payments. The IMF was founded in 1945 with 29 members and aimed to foster global monetary co-operation. There are 189 today. The Gold Standard remained in place until 1971.
  7. Labour benefited from the Anglo-American Loan negotiated by Keynes in 1946, equivalent to some $60 billion in today’s prices, at a low interest rate of 2 per cent. The loan was finally paid off at the end of 2006.

Since 1951 the world has gone through massive changes. By 1963 Harold Wilson was already referring to the “white hot heat of the technological revolution” and wrote that he wished “to  replace the cloth cap (with) the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British Labour”.

Whether we agree with Wilson’s aspirations or not, I do wonder what would be the symbol of today’s Labour Party.

Since the Wilson era, the size, influence and power of multinational companies have grown enormously; today’s technology means resources and financial powers can be transferred at the touch of a button; and China, which emerged as a form of Communist regime opposed to capitalist norms, now outplays many capitalist nations.

For those who hold on to traditional democratic socialist aspirations, how should we respond to today’s world within the confines of our own political system?

Labour policies today

The recent Labour Party conference took us back to some of the stances of 1945. The party’s current proposals, not all adopted at this year’s conference, include:

  • taking rail, water, energy and the Royal Mail back into public ownership
  • providing the means for workers’ control, co-operative enterprises and the extension of trade union rights
  • restoring a healthy and viable NHS
  • direct action on climate change
  • a national education service with free tuition for students on college, technical and vocational courses, and moves to scrap university tuition fees
  • an end to public-private partnerships – as John McDonnell said: “We are taking them back.”

I generally support these proposals as long-term objectives, although some could be introduced more quickly than others. But what can we hope to deliver in the current circumstances, when and how? We are currently suffering from the continuing consequences of the 2008 financial collapse and the economic impact of moves to Brexit.

There is scope for increasing taxes on the excessively rich and deficit expenditure (although at a fringe meeting McDonnell attacked the Tories for doing the latter) to improve people’s basic conditions and advance their opportunities.

But these are not magic wands. We do not have the equivalent of Britain’s immediate post-war international (and American) aid, and we do not live in a country with the same prevailing conditions and attitudes. I cannot see Labour delivering its current programme in anything like the lifetime of a single government.

So Labour will need to deliver what it can while working to establish a broader European and international framework that can gradually change and improve world conditions, so that we (and others) can work for better economic and social conditions in our societies.

In short, the current Labour leadership needs to confront what is the maximum art of the possible.

In particular, Labour needs to re-connect with people who were once regarded as solidly working class Labour supporters. Their descendants today are often some of the most deprived and isolated members of society – either unemployed, underpaid, in insecure jobs or working zero hours contracts, and often homeless or in excessively overcrowded accommodation – with little or no hope for the future.

Many such people flirted with UKIP and voted for Brexit, believing their economic plight arose from immigrants taking their job opportunities. Without surrendering to those views, Labour needs to consider how to restrict the numbers of people moving here from EU nations. This is perfectly compatible with giving full UK citizenship rights to those who are already settled in this country, while accepting many overseas people who are fleeing from persecution.

Compromising to change the lives and aspirations of people living in deprived circumstances will influence their future stance on immigration, helping to eventually adjust their overall outlook. But despite the recent boost  in Labour membership, the party rarely mixes with people from deprived backgrounds.

Looking for a synthesis

When Tony Blair made his first speech at Labour conference following his election as leader I was sitting in the MPs’ section. Around me, everyone, it seemed, immediately jumped up to clap him.

Not wanting my photo to appear in the media as an immediate and grumpy rebel, I compromised by standing up but not clapping. A voice behind me said: “Harry what are you up to?” I turned to see a firmly seated and non-clapping Jeremy Corbyn. He was the only person to remain in his seat.

I wonder what I would have done in the same circumstances at this year’s party conference. Perhaps standing and not clapping is a sign of someone searching for a meaningful progressive synthesis between problematic extremes, going beyond both the limits of a Blairite thesis and the reaction of the Corbynite anti-thesis.


Harry Barnes is the former Labour MP for North East Derbyshire. He blogs at ‘Three Score Years and Ten’.


  1. Harry Barnes
    15 November 2017

    On an initative by certain MPs (and with the Tories not daring to mobilise against it) the following motion was carried in the Commons on Tuesday:
    “That this House has considered the systemic issues enabling tax avoidance and evasion uncovered by the Paradise Papers.”

    Based on the argument: “That the actions and the culture of powerful large corporations and of the wealthiest in our society, as revealed in the Paradise papers, constitute a national and international disgrace. What we have learned is that tax avoidance is not just a trivial irritant practised by a small number of greedy individuals and global corporations; it is the widely accepted behaviour of too many of those who are rich and influential. It is clearly taking place on an industrial scale and it has become a scourge on our society. The Paradise papers reveal the enormity and scale of the problem and that is what makes this emergency debate on the issue so important.”

    This was not, of course, a legislative move. But it is a quick, small and welcome start which Labour needs to build on. The next big opportunity to raise the matter is during the coming budget. In office Labour then needs as a first stage to turn most of the tax avoidance that is revealed in the Paradise papers into illegal actions. The main trouble is that although those involved in the practices don’t wish us to know what they are up to, these actions (in the main) are not at the moment banned under our laws – as they should be. Then we will need law enforcment avenues. This is all moving onto Labour’s agenda. Yet at the same time, we may also need to seek to act to avoid a flight of capital out of this country to what would be more capital-friendly markets.

    This debate was also urgent and timely because the Chancellor is putting the finishing touches to his Budget. Whilst he is unlikely to take the resolution into account – or only in a token way – the Budget does give an opportunity for Labour to push the matter further.

  2. Ernest Jacques
    12 November 2017


    The Paradise Papers lift the lid on the tax avoidance industry and it’s huge. We are not talking billions, but trillions of pounds, and they’re all at it: heads of state, prime ministers, politicians, the super-rich, sports and entertainment celebrities and multi-national companies.

    You know Harry, the same people who get the gongs, who lobby and pontificate about balanced budgets and on the need to cut back on public spending, and who love privatisation and free markets, and say our NHS and welfare state is unaffordable. This includes many self-serving Labour Party luminaries who promote neoliberalism (trickledown economics) and crumbs from the rich man’s table, and who hate Corbyn and everything he stands for.

    Well Jeremy, let’s go a bit further than demanding apologies cos we have found Labour’s magic money tree.

    Jail the crooks and make the tax-avoiders pay their dues, then we can fund the NHS, schools and public services without cuts and with plenty left over to invest in vital infrastructure projects, rejuvenating deprived neighbourhood communities and in building desperately needed social housing.

    Be bold Jeremy Corbyn, cos a wimpish response to those who leach off the system just doesn’t cut-it and will win you no friends among the establishment, red-top papers, and the great and the good, no matter what you say or do – be they Tory, Liberal, New Labour, Blue Labour or CEOs.

  3. Harry Barnes
    9 November 2017

    Ernie, I attempted the following letter with the Guardian, supplying my full details so they could contact me to check that it was mine. For it is knowing the full scale and details of these tax fiddles which will help us to shape the correct legislative proposals and gather pubic supporr for them. But no-one has been in touch from the Guardian, because they are just into dribs and drabs to keep their circulation figures up. Instead, we need to access the full papers concerned.

    I wrote as briefly as I could saying: “According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the Queen’s personal wealth makes her the 329th wealthiest person in the United Kingdom – with her position falling down the list. Do the Paradise Papers reveal any people who are ahead of her in the list who also have significant sections of their wealth tucked away in offshore tax-free havens? And, if so, who are these? And how much of their wealth is covered in this way? I am not against criticising the Queen’s position on this matter, but perhaps she is only the tip of the iceberg.”

    I am, of course, also aware that the Sunday Times Rich List only refers to the Queen’s private wealth and that she has extra massive facilities supplied to her by the state which alllow her to live in the manner she is accustomed to. But we need to know as much as we can about the full range of what all differing capitalist powers are up to. Knowledge is strength.

  4. Ernest Jacques
    7 November 2017

    The Paradise Papers have again opened the lid on (the cess-pit) tax dodging industry.

    Jeremy Corbyn is reported as seeking an apology from the Queen. What’s that about?

    Mrs Windsor should pay her taxes just like the plebs she rules (sic) over. It seems the super-rich and multi-national companies can choose whether they pay tax. And most choose not to and for purely self-serving reasons. Indeed, there is no good reason for the rich to salt their ill-gotten gains in tax havens.

    But Westminster politicians (not you Harry Barnes) have failed to take tax avoidance seriously enough for decades. And the Labour governments of Blair and Brown have been complicit in allowing this to happen for decades. Some Labour MPs even salt their own money in tax havens. The guilty ones should be removed, deselected, kicked-out. It would be nice to think a future Labour government would also legislate to make tax avoidance illegal and punishable by a hefty prison sentences.

    Neither of these options is going to happen, but ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,’ Harry.

  5. Ernest Jacques
    5 November 2017

    Well Harry 2 out of 64. Not good. But the optimist in me thinks: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

    But there again, in 2001 you got an echo from 145 MP’s, so the pessimist in me thinks: its going to be a long haul. So I wont hold my breath and wait for team Jeremy to come good. But you never know, I’m often wrong.

  6. Harry Barnes
    4 November 2017

    Ernie: On Thursday I emailed the remaining 64 Labour MPs who were in parliament in my time to try to advance my efforts. One replied after only six minutes and another after four and a half hours. None since.

    From information on my blog, I estimate that an attachment I sent with my email has been opened at the most by them (or their assistants) for half of my efforts. Unless I get a later rush, I will assume that my initiative has bitten the dust. So I can get back to other avenues to save the universe. On the other hand they are all rather busy furthering or dismissing harassment claims.

  7. Ernest Jacques
    2 November 2017

    Well Harry, it’s an answer, I don’t know about THE ANSWER. But you’d get my vote cos I like you, you say some decent things and are not self-serving. But there again Harry, support from a life-long loser like me is no answer.

  8. Harry Barnes
    23 October 2017

    Whilst my Early Day Motion was signed by Jeremy Corbyn and others, it was certainly not signed by Gordon Brown who at that time was not in favour of the measure – and was even cutting corporation tax. In any case it is a Commons practice that Ministers do not sign such Motions, they only use this avenue for governmental procedural reasons.

    But prior to the 2005 election Brown did finally come out in favour of the measure providing other major financial centres (especially the USA) would join in – which was a huge “if”. So it was never an election pledge when he finally led Labour to the defeat. His argument being that if the UK on its own (or with just a handful of others) placed a tax on such financial transactions, then firms would just move their resources out of our countriy into avenues where no such tax operated (which could well be a problem.)

    However, I now find that I don’t need to press the matter on Jeremy and company for it was actually part of Labour’s policy at the last General Election. And John McDonnell has confirmed that it remains part of Labour’s financial package. It is now being called a “Stamp Duty Reserve Tax” – although the Financial Times knew what it meant. International efforts to extend the practice would, however, still be very helpful. Imagine having an international commitment to use the revenue from a universal tax version of this type to help tackle the plight of the refugees from the former Burma – and for similar international humanitarian problems.

  9. Ernest Jacques
    23 October 2017

    Well done Harry Barnes and all those Labour MPs, including Gordon Brown, who supported your early day motion in support of a TAX on currency speculators.

    But Harry, that was the year of Blair’s landslide general election victory and there were 413 Labour MPs in the Commons, so by my reckoning that means 268 couldn’t be bothered. Many of them like Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw, Alistair Darling, Blunkett, etc will, no doubt, have been too busy filling their boots at the Parliamentary and corporate gravy trains.

  10. Harry Barnes
    21 October 2017

    Ernie: Here is one of my efforts to push the Robin Hood Tax, which was then named after the founder of the idea as being the Tobin Tax –
    The Early Day Motion of mine which it mentions was signed by Jeremy Corbyn as well as another 144 of us on a cross party basis (but mainly Labour). It’s time to give him a reminder.

  11. Harry Barnes
    12 October 2017

    Hello Ernie,

    Thanks for your response, for we get nowhere without the dialectics of debate.

    In my concluding section, however, I must not have expressed myself as clearly as I should have. For I was not quilty of standing up and clapping at Blair’s entrance to conference. If I engaged in any sin, it was that of compromising. I stood up, but did not clap.

    Afterwards my rebellious record in the Commons against Blair was substantial, even though it fell marginally behind that of Dennis Skinner, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. But then there was the odd thing that Blair did that had my backing, such as his work to advance the peace process in Northern Ireland.

    You say that Labour governments have never made “the rich and multinational tax dodgers pay” for a worthwhile social programme. By using the term “multinationals” you are basically correct. But as I had attempted to argue, there was the relative achievements of the Attlee government in the days before the powers of mutlinational capitalism.

    We need techniques (via developing international links with other nations and international bodies) to draw from the wealth and power of modern day multinationals. Controls on currency speculation via what is now often called the Robin Hood Tax being one such avenue.

    If we have the will, we then have to find ways that will work in the complexities of a modern capitalist-dominated world. That does not mean that we have to surrender, but an understanding of the difficulties also means we can then resort to the most effective methods.

  12. Ernest Jacques
    11 October 2017

    While Harry makes some good points on the Corbyn phenomena and who could disagree with his reference to needing widespread public support with regards to manifesto and conference policy proposals? Without public support there is no point and can be no Corbyn government.

    He goes on to list five policy issues concluding: “I generally support these proposals as long-term objectives”, suggesting there is no money or only limited money to fund them.

    I disagree. Where there is a will there is a way and as everyone knows you must invest (borrow) to fund your priorities and reap the benefits of the good society. Of course, if the economic strategy doesn’t stack up then it is wishful thinking. But there are huge numbers to be had from making the rich and multinational tax dodgers pay up, something Labour governments have never attempted, never mind done. Added to the huge vanity projects like HR2, which most will never use and should be scrapped. Also, there are huge savings to be made from scrapping Trident, not Labour policy admittedly, but it could soon be if it’s the membership that gets to vote on these matters.

    And what about a fraction of the quantitative easing money printed by Labour and Tory governments to reward the rich, crooks, bond traders and tax avoiders? So, there you have it Harry, Labour’s magic money tree needed to implement Labour policies. But the missing ingredient is Labour’s will and whether enough of its Parliamentarians want change. And that, for sure, is problematic.

    That brings me onto Corbyn and the hand clapping saga. If a person on the left like Harry feels the need to stand and clap someone like Tony Blair, so as not to stick out like a sore thumb, then we have problems. Likewise, since becoming leader Jeremy Corbyn, has felt is necessary to conform to establishment whims and now dresses up in a new Matalan suit and tie.

    So if our representative must compromise and conform at the level, then Labour’s policies and Corbyn’s fundamental change and fairness agenda, might well be wishful thinking. But we live in hope.

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