The Labour Left Divide is a Two-Way Street

Labour seems divided over ideology and strategy, between the ‘old’ left and ‘new’. BEN SELLERS traces the history of Labour left groups over the last few years and calls for a new bridge across the generational divide.

For three decades, I’ve been involved in organising the left in and around the Labour Party. For barely three of those years, the Labour left has been in some kind of ascendancy. The explosion of socialist ideas and movement-building that has taken place since 2015 is without precedent in the recent history of the party. The rest of that time, the Labour left has been led by a small band of stalwarts, largely ignored by the rest of the party, never mind the political establishment and mainstream media.

It was sometimes a lonely place. I remember, as recently as January 2015, looking around a room of 200 or so socialists who had turned out on a wet Saturday in London for yet another new initiative, and thinking, so this is it, then? The room was full of good people, decent socialists and a wealth of experience. There was too much grandstanding – mostly on issues we all agreed on – and nowhere near enough consciousness of the need to organise. But the reality was, that wasn’t ‘it’: there were tens of thousands outside that room, who were members pre-2015 and ended up voting for Jeremy Corbyn.

Inevitably, the activist core had shrunk: we’d been in the wilderness for too long, and the defeats suffered had created a culture that was inward-looking. The last ‘high point’ for the Labour left had been way back during the deputy leadership campaign of 1980, when Tony Benn lost by a whisker to old Labour right-winger Denis Healey. That defeat took its toll, and the Labour left was a divided mess for some time after. As it shrank – under attack from Neil Kinnock, who made isolating the Bennite left the test of his leadership – it lost confidence.

In the 1990s, socialists in the Labour Party gathered around the Socialist Campaign Group. But that organisation was very focused on parliamentary big beasts of the Labour left – Benn, Dennis Skinner and Eric Heffer – rather than being the grassroots, active, campaigning left we needed. There was never enough of an attempt to spread the Socialist Campaign group to the regions, although a few local groups did emerge.

The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) was formed by John McDonnell in 2004 with the explicit aim of ‘re-founding’ the Labour Party (hence the name referencing the organisation that ‘gave birth’ to the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century). The LRC was designed to take the left out into the country, and to challenge the reliance on leading figures. It was an attempt to develop a radical, grassroots left which was driven by the members and trade union activists rather than the parliamentarians and union general secretaries. Sound familiar?

However, despite having a relatively large membership, the LRC punched well below its weight. One of the reasons was an open political culture, which provided the ‘Heinz 57’ flavours of left groups with a haven from the strictures of New Labour. The flip side of this openness was that the LRC became a site of battle for control for those groups, while those who’d dedicated their lives to the socialist cause, within the party, became increasingly demoralised. And that’s pretty much where we were on the eve of the 2015 leadership election.

Corbyn surge

I turned from an active member of the LRC to a card-carrying one a few years before the Corbyn surge. At the time, I was their national organiser, but I was frustrated by a lack of progress in the drive to make the LRC an organisation with national reach and a decent social media presence. I joined others in building up Red Labour on social media, which ultimately played a pivotal role in getting Corbyn elected as leader.

A lot has happened in the time since, but as Corbyn’s leadership developed, and Momentum took over the branding of the Labour left, that (older) left got left behind, alongside the likes of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) and Red Labour. As the Corbyn project has hit inevitable road blocks and the alternatives to the LRC have failed to deliver the grassroots democracy we need, I became less convinced that I’d done the right thing. Not because the LRC was or is perfect, but because when you’re building movements, it’s about what you can contribute to the collective that matters – not finding a purist, idealised clique that exists as your comfort zone.

Building a movement, and organising it, is messy. You’ll have arguments; you’ll have to reach compromises. These are the things that building big, effective organisations are about. But there is little choice if you want to create a genuine, open, grassroots organisation capable of both supporting the leadership of the party and pushing it towards the transformational socialism this country needs.

I despair slightly when I read about whole swathes of the party being written off as ‘cranks’ and conspiracy theorists, and a young, ‘core’ group being uncritically lauded as the future of the party. In the meantime, older members are further marginalised because they don’t have the same access to social media or the cliques of power that are developing within the Corbyn project. It’s not accurate and it’s not fair. Above all, it feels like a power play, to put distance between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ left.

I think that’s naïve, damaging and exactly the opposite of what we should be doing, three years into this project. The truth is that we must bridge the generational divide, not prise it open further. To do that, we’ll have to engage with the traditional organisations of the Labour left, understand traditions of democratic participation and principles of collective action.

Nothing bad will come of getting involved with the ‘older’ left, listening to their activists and learning from their experience. At the same time, by engaging, younger activists can educate too, bring energy and improve communications with the world. It’s a two-way street.

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Ben Sellers works for the Labour MP, Laura Pidcock.

Read more: @MrBenSellers

This article was originally published on the Labour List website.

 

19 Comments

  1. Harry Barnes
    29 March 2019

    At the moment, the PLP is in chaos. Although this is largely hidden from view via the huge divisions in the Conservative Party, as reflected in their conflicts over Brexit. We have numbers of MPs who have resigned from the PLP or been suspended. Then others have resigned from front bench positions. The Deputy Leader has even set up a rival group to Corbyn.

    Then the leadership moves to push for either a Customs Union or a fresh referendum, both of which will alienate our declining working class support. What the Labour Party needs at grass roots level are people who will attend branch and discussion meetings and make use of what remains of Labour’s delegatory system – and develop it. Inner party groups and the use of modern media technology (if we encourage people to stop just verbally farting at each other) should be used as an add-on to stimulate such activity.

    My arguments can be found on my 12-year-old blog, ‘Three Score Years and Ten’, set up for me by my son for my 70th birthday.

  2. Kenneth R. Curran Snr;
    31 March 2019

    Having joined the Labour Party in 1946 I suppose I am well and truly a member of the old left. In spite of the lengthening of the school leaving age plus the opportunities of a university education, the general level of
    political understanding of both our own political system plus the philosophies of the Labour Party are very poor.

    Bearing in mind Labour has the largest membership in Europe, this is certainly not reflected in membership awareness. There is no real facility within the Party for new members can learn those very valuable values needed in a democratic socialist party. where tolerance and understanding is needed. Without some structure and guidance, new young members are left to their own devices, or end up becoming embroiled in one or other of the Facebook blogs where wisdom and common sense is in very short supply.

    More has to be done by constituencies and regional parties, to organise day and weekend schools. There were many of these in the late 1940s and 50s but somewhere along the road Labour stopped thinking about ideas. It changed, and now it’s all about how to win elections. Nobody asked why or what for?

  3. Ben Saltonstall
    7 April 2019

    I’m sorry, I have no idea about splits between the old left and new Corbyn fans. I have noticed that some younger people are abusive and nasty on social media. But most members are lovely and just vaguely idealistic, hopeful and open minded. The old left has a lot to learn from hope and open mindedness (don’t we all).

    However, all members need to engage more rigorously in developing what Marx would have called political economy. What are the alternatives to neo-liberalism, really? What can we learn from past left wing failures (of which, let’s be honest, there have been many and sometimes grievous). How can Labour engage the community in promoting fair and democratic ways of organising the economy? If we can focus on those tasks, we’ll come together (if sometimes to share differences civilly).

  4. John Enderby
    13 May 2019

    I tend to agree with Ben Sellers and his critique of the ‘new left’, having replaced a broad-based socialist movement with a hotchpotch of single issue causes and identity politics that have little resonance with ordinary working people, particularly those who have to deal with the bigger picture of rising austerity and social inequality on a daily basis.

    To have any relevance, socialism has to be rooted both within the local community and the broader labour movement, as was certainly the case in the past. The new left have largely reduced socialism to a trendy metropolitan talking shop which equates the Paris of 1968 with the St Petersburg of 1917.

    I’m a big fan of John McDonnell, who is more rooted within the trade union movement and the ‘old left’. Jeremy Corbyn, I’m afraid, needs to jettison the baggage of the 1960s and put the locomotive of socialism back on its tracks.

  5. john Enderby
    14 May 2019

    It is interesting to note that what we call the ‘New Left’ has its origins way back in 1956 when many people rightly exited the Communist Party after the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary. The new movement failed to galvanise people in a way the ‘old left’ of the Communist Party and the ILP had done.

    The New Left did produce some important figures, such as labour historian EP Thompson, but soon degenerated into the student radicalism of the 1960s which had little appeal to working people, promoting its own brand of narcissistic, self-indulgent, grandstanding politics which could never evolve into a broader mass movement.

    The New Left has retained a political influence largely due to its key intellectual figures – Perry Anderson, Tariq Ali and David Harvey. However, it is interesting to note that it was never joined by the Marxist leviathan, Eric Hobsbawm, who never wanted to be associated with the movement.

    This is the movement which has shaped many of the key figures of the Labour left, including Jeremy Corbyn, but now needs to be firmly abandoned to the waste bin of history if socialism is ever to gain a broader appeal again.

  6. B Watson
    14 May 2019

    A very interesting read and I do agree with John Enderby on this, for you can have as much talk and discussion about values, refounding, and what not as you like but if the voters can’t comprehend what you’re about, what it means to them, and how you’re going to manage the country better than the current shambolic lot, you’re not going to get in, are you?

    To me the Labour party is simply, for all its good words, just not punching its weight. It’s not getting any messages across, hence why it didn’t make mincemeat of the Tories in the recent elections. I know it wasn’t a general election but we should have been miles ahead and we weren’t. There is something wrong with a party leadership and organisation that can’t put a big enough hole in the side of a failing Tory government to sink it.

    When I hear people who typically vote Tory say they might not vote the same way next time, they are not telling me they will vote Labour. They will go for Liberals or even Greens or independents. And these are the people Labour has to turn if it stands any chance.

    People are just as confused about Labour as they are about the Tories on Brexit. Nigel Farage has created a party overnight and we have the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming the next PM, with many people quite happy for this to happen despite his record. Something has to change, and quickly.

  7. B Watson
    15 May 2019

    Just to add a footnote to my rather rambling previous comment – it’s reported that British Steel needs another massive loan of £75 million in guarantees on top of the £120m loan it’s already received. It needs the money because access to free credit is suspended during the six-month extension period to the Brexit deadline. In the long term, the company will lose the protection afforded by the EU against steel dumping from countries like China. So the plant is again at major risk of closure with many jobs about to go that will never be replaced.

    In addition, Honda this week confirmed its plant in Swindon will close and 3,500 jobs will go, as well as all the feed-in jobs. Our high streets are also in free fall with retail jobs going by the second.

    All this is happening on a Tory watch while Labour is in a state of confusion about Brexit. Socialist ideals are one thing but not when you’re on state benefits with a promise of a brighter tomorrow. I have been there and I’m not going there again.

    The question is, what is Labour going to do about this mess? And will people listen? Not many from where I sit.

  8. Harry Barnes
    16 May 2019

    I have a different view of the New Left from the one expressed by John Enderby, particularly on its early years. It seems to me to be exactly the type of body we need today, but adjusted to an era of massively changed technology.

    After Kruschev revealed the serious problems that operated under Stalin, EP Thompson and John Saville became the editors of the newly established The New Reasoner in July 1956. Almost immediately this was followed by the Russian invasion of Hungary, which pulled this left further away from any of their past attachment to the influence of Communism.

    Universities and Left Review was then established in Spring 1957 with articles by Issaac Deutscher, Claude Bourdet, Lindsay Anderson, EP Thompson, GDH Cole, Joan Robinson and Basil Davidson. And the notion that socialist advance needed more than just a commitment to public ownership and to a welfare state was developed. Ideas of co-operative controls could be drawn from the past and from that period’s developments in Yugoslavia. But ideas were added on the needs for cultural developments and lifelong learning which would help people work out their own understandings to help transform and improve their lives (see Culture and Society by Raymond Williams, 1959) while integrating them into collective developments.

    The above two journals united to form the biomonthly New Left Review under the editorship of Stuart Hall at the start of 1960. After two years Perry Anderson replaced Stuart Hall and a ‘new’ New Left took shape, taken over by a form of isolationist and specialist academic Marxism.

    The great thing about the ‘old’ New Left was that, although its contributors being mainly academics, they avoided specialist discourse. I could understand them and I left school after failing ‘O’ level Maths and English Language. They were in favour of people being involved in the dialectics of debate and working out agreed ways forward.

    We are in need of a modern version of the old New Left. In the lead-up to the initial New Left, a body called the International Society of Socialist Studies (ISSS) was established, based on the ideas of GDH Cole as expressed in his New Statesman pamphlet of July 1956 entitled World Socialism Restated. Stuart Hall was involved before moving on to edit New Left Review. It was intended to be an international version of the Fabian Society, but built on the type of approach which also emerged in the old New Left. Perhaps its time has now arrived, when new technology allows people to link in, discuss and debate.

  9. John Stephen Enderby
    16 May 2019

    I agree with the comments made above. This country has to face some serious economic issues which impact directly upon the lives of ordinary working people. The Labour Party has to justify its existence to people who feel alienated by the social and economic changes that have occurred over the last 40 years due to the Tory implementation of a brutal neoliberal ideology – insecure low-paid employment, a promised state pension which will never come until you reach 70, unaffordable housing due to market speculation, and rising personal debt which is the direct result of the austerity created through paying off the casino bankers.

    Can anyone remember a time when there was so much homelessness on our streets? And a rising fascist movement as grim as anything we faced in the 1930s.

    All is not lost, however. At the local level communities have been coming together and are fighting back against racism, austerity, hospital closures and fracking. There is a large groundswell of people out there who need a vital labour movement to take up their cause and campaign on their behalf, bringing together grassroots movements and what’s left of our proud trade unions.

    The metropolitanisation of the Labour Party has been one the the biggest disasters of recent years, as exemplified by the ‘new left’, and both wings of the party have been complicit in this. As the Russian Revolution demonstrated in 1917, it is people who make revolutions, not well tenured academics or public school educated spin doctors.

  10. B Watson
    17 May 2019

    It seems to me that Labour is a grand talking shop which spends too much time talking about policies, principles and visions while missing the point of attack. It seems to have no understanding of how to exploit the Tories’ failings using mass media. The party and its leadership have some good policies, but also a serious image problem among the population.

    Thatcher came to power with the help of a top media comms organisation which made mincemeat of the Labour Party at the time, daily exploiting the weaknesses of Labour and its leadership.

    Labour’s current methods of messaging and advertising itself are little more than poor to average. Nigel Farage knows how to do it and the Tories are still past masters, but Labour’s efforts seem amateurish by comparison.

  11. john stephen enderby
    17 May 2019

    I agree with Harry Barnes that figures such as Stuart Hall, EP Thompson and Raymond Williams made an exceptional contribution to socialist theory and adapted Marxist ideas to a changing social and technological world, as did older left figures such as GDH Cole and Isaac Deutscher, who were both exceptional narrative historians. My point is that the New Left was an abject failure as a political movement, despite its massive intellectual contribution to the wider debate about the future of socialism in a changing world.

    Serious ideas and stimulating debate are the life blood of the labour movement and the New Left did develop the guild socialism of GDH Cole, thinking about a world of devolved collective ownership and community control, and expanding upon much older socialist and anarchist ideas. EP Thompson also reconnected us with our radical past and demonstrated that this democratic history could be a vital source of inspiration for our modern times.

    However, we live in much harsher economic times than could ever be imagined in the better days of the 1950s and 60s – as I’m sure Harry Barnes would agree. I also agree with the points made by B Watson in his comment above, if Labour cannot sink the Tories with comical figures like ‘Failing Grayling’ in the cabinet, and after wasting vast amounts of public money into the bargain, then we are truly finished as a political movement.

  12. Harry Barnes
    18 May 2019

    We need a Labour Party which can work with and through groups in different nations towards what should be shared ends. One avenue is via the Party of European Socialists which has links which go beyond the boundaries of the European Union.

    Our priorities should be collective ones – tackling climate change, overcoming conflicts which lead to starvation in impoverished nations, and tackling the causes of extremist conflicts. There are organisations such as the United Nations, and other non-socialist bodies, which need to be drawn into programmes for worldwide social advance.

    In doing such things we need to be aware of the powers of international capitalism. These cannot be overcome by a wave of the wand. A form of gradualist persistance is needed. When reforms are introduced capitalist powers will move to override their impact and new measures will be needed to stop them undermining past reforms.

    We also need a commitment to life-long learning and the dialectics of debate so those who are currently seriously deprived in our societies can provide food for thought. Hopefully that will help equip people to reshape life and end exploitation

  13. Ben Saltonstall
    23 May 2019

    I’d like to speak out on behalf of young ‘Corbynistas’ – not my usual stance, by the way – and take issue with the comment that they have “replaced a broad-based socialist movement with a hotchpotch of single issue causes and identity politics that have little resonance with ordinary working people, particularly those who have to deal with the bigger picture of rising austerity and social inequality on a daily basis”.

    This comment is flawed because:
    1) There was no broad-based socialist movement to replace. The working class Labour movement died out between 1979 and 1997, and its ‘socialist’ elements only existed as a few fragmentary groups, without influence in the Labour Party or the working class. New Labour, of course, did its best to finish off any remnants.

    2) The working class is a small but significant minority and accounts for about 20 per cent of the population. Working class people tend to be older and socially conservative. These days they have almost no contact with ‘the labour and trade union movement’ – mainly, that’s for middle class people in public sector jobs. Many despise people on benefits and the victims of austerity. Whilst they are not wealthy, and don’t universally enjoy the luxuries of occupational pensions, sick pay or holiday pay, they often earn reasonable amounts of money and own property. For an accurate, and evidence based description of our class system, please see this blog by Mike Savage, the leading authority in Britain on class and class politics.

    3) There are other newer classes, which are younger and less socially conservative: new affluent workers and emergent service workers. They are sometimes identified as hipsters or the metropolitan elite, though many were born to working class parents. Many are entrepreneurs or have ‘portfolio careers’. Corbyn appeals to these classes. Any political project on the left would have to forge an alliance between these groups and the traditional working class and public sector middle class.

    4) The precariat, which is different and separate from the traditional working class, remains politically unattached, just as when it was known, not very sympathetically, by Marxists as ‘the lumpen proletariat’.

    5) Feminism, anti-racism, disability equality, equal rights for gay and lesbians and trans rights are not single issue causes, but a network of related interests, some of which have developed critiques as profound as anything in traditional socialist discourse. They are about existential issues which affect everyone, in every way, from personal safety to pensions, from sexual identity to childcare. A good example of an equality campaigner who should be an inspiration to socialists is Peter Tatchell. He can be a socialist and an equality campaigner, and an environmentalist, all at once. There are such things these days as gay vegan plumbers, black electricians, and women construction engineers. The world is changing.

    6) It is true to say that some older white working class people who are not closely connected to immigrant populations don’t much like these ‘single issue’ (sic) campaigns. This may be because they are politically, as well as socially, conservative. It may also be because they feel – despite having more money than some people – overlooked, left out, disrespected, ignored. I’m a white, middle-aged property owner. I understand them; sometimes I feel the same way. I try not to let it get to me. But like them I’m proud to be English and I’m proud that I can trace my family roots on these islands back over a thousand years. That shouldn’t privilege me over anyone else, but it is a source of pride. It’s about time the left started to acknowledge those feelings, which aren’t all about economics, if it wants to start communicating with these people. Blue Labour had a point, you know.

  14. john stephen enderby
    23 May 2019

    I think Ben Saltonstall has made some interesting points about the changing dynamics of class politics within Britain, which are largely true and the result of a seismic economic shift within British society since Thatcher came to power in 1979.

    However, I have never denied the importance of single issue politics or their ability to galvanise people into wider social action. Nor was my criticism raised against the new generation of young people who support Corbyn, but the self-indulgent New Left which emerged in the 1960s.

    I believe my main point still stands. The movement which emerged in the 1960s to replace the ‘old left’ failed to gain wider support amongst working people or anybody else for that matter.

    Some socialists have failed to see the wood for the trees and this lack of focus sadly continues with many of them today. Yes the world has changed, but the economic realities which people face in their daily lives, and the choices before them, have not.

  15. john stephen enderby
    23 May 2019

    There is also a note of irony about the sons and daughters of the well heeled protesting against a Wilson Labour government which had fought tooth and nail to keep Britain out of Vietnam.
    Perhaps I should consult the French Marxist theory of the Situationists?

  16. john stephen enderby
    5 June 2019

    What is wrong with the present Labour Party? Instead of finally sinking the sitting target of a lame and bankrupt Tory government Jeremy Corbyn organises yet another ‘new left’ demo in Trafalgar Square.

    It was Jeremy Corbyn who was responsible for me rejoining the Labour Party after many years of absence due to a disappointing lack of socialist direction. But what is the point of any socialist movement if it fails to focus on the task of gaining power to remove inequality and change the lives of ordinary people for the better? This was certainly understood by the Labour Party of Clement Attlee, which contained both liberals and revolutionaries in its mixed bag of members.

    My argument with the Corbyn leadership is not over policy, or ideology, but of a criminal lack of focus at a critical time for the people of this country. Labour has failed to plant its flag firmly in the progressive camp in the debacle over Brexit, and this will cost it votes and credibility from the very people who joined the party to support the Corbyn project in the first place.

  17. john stephen enderby
    5 June 2019

    Reading between the lines of the recent presidential visit, it is pretty clear that the majority of the present Tory cabinet have looked at the carve-up of the NHS in a future trade deal with Trump.

    We desperately need the election of a Labour government to prevent this disaster. If Jeremy Corbyn cannot provide effective leadership that can reach out to a wider electorate with a clear message then he should be a good comrade and stand down.

  18. B Watson
    9 June 2019

    In a matter of weeks one man has created a one-policy party, taken the recent EU elections by storm, and his party very nearly won Peterborough and put the Tories into third place.

    You can say what you like about Nigel Farage, but he has welded together a popular vote from nowhere while Labour seems to have lost ground and is struggling to move ahead. With Farage, of course, it’s all about Brexit and that’s been telling given the fog surrounding Labour’s position.

    You can say what you like about getting the Labour message across, and I know it’s all good stuff, but if people aren’t voting Labour in droves you have to ask why they aren’t listening given the abysmal Tory record.

    It’s the singer, not the song. In politics you have to have a strong, confident personality who is constantly on his/her soapbox, banging the drum day in day out, using every tool in the cabinet. Get that bit right and there might be a chance of a Labour government.

  19. Harry Barnes
    17 June 2019

    On Brexit, for short-term electoral advantage, Labour can decide to go for:
    (a) remain voters (Tom Watson style) drawing support especially from younger middle class voters, or
    (b) leave voters, thus seeking to stop its loss of support (including to non-voters) from a mainly deprived and depressed (yet now smaller) working class.

    A leave position does not, however, have to mean a no-deal Brexit. There is still Theresa May’s deal which (i) can still be supported or (ii) can be adjusted, say by including a transitional customs union to ease matters for the EU and the UK, and/or by overcoming the backstop arrangement by negotiating, especially with the Irish government, to build on Ireland and Northern Ireland’s current trading arrangements.

    I feel it is important to retain and recapture working class support and involvement, so we could work for a non-sham leaving of the EU which is not no deal. Then we should seek to press for the wellbeing of working class people (from whatever backgrounds) to gain their support and involvement in the Labour Party. We should even try to seek to restore our position with the working class in Scotland and Wales – and even to operate fully in Northern Ireland.

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