Monday, 14 May 2007

Browned off with Gordon? Look left to John!

I don't intend to use this blog as a dumping ground for old articles but given John McDonnell's campaign to lead the Labour Party in the face of the usual New Labour nonsense from Gordon Brown, I thought I'd share an article I wrote from Issue 4 of Left Tribune which came out last Autumn on the background to his campaign.

It's also worth noting that John McDonnell's campaign is officially supported by Labour Youth in Ireland. A letter was sent by Patrick Nulty, Labour Youth Chair, to McDonnell, which he graciously responded to with a handwritten note. The hope is for LY can now link up with Britain's Socialist Youth Network - keen supporters of McDonnell.

For John McDonnell, the hope today is that he can tot up the 45 required nominations from MPs to get on the ballot and ensure a true debate on the sickening decline of British Labour presided over by Brown and Blair.


This summer's announcement by left-wing MP John McDonnell that he would stand for the leadership of British Labour caused a minor stir in a popular media besotted with the personalities of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But, as Dermot Looney writes, McDonnell's campaign is part of a historic narrative in which left and right battle it out for the hearts and minds of Britain and its troubled Labour Party.

A casual observer might not think a politician who lists "generally fermenting the overthrow of capitalism" among his interests in Who's Who fits in well to a Labour Party dominated by Blairism for more than a decade. But John McDonnell's bid to become the next British Labour Leader is far from an anachronism. Rather, it is a legitimate and vital campaign to reclaim the values, principles, policies and politics of the left for the party. And those scoffing how a socialist campaign is expected to thrive fall into the mythical trap of believing that Labour equals Blairism.

Left-wing activists who remain 'in the pavilion' of Labour politics have been battered, bruised and cast aside - but they are not yet defeated. An estimated 200,000 members have left the party in the last decade - some 25 times the entire membership of the Irish Labour Party. But Londoner McDonnell, who has significant Irish roots, is adamant that his campaign should be the trigger for many of them to rejoin and for new members, particularly amongst Britain's disenfranchised youth, to take up membership and activism. His campaign is undoubtedly one seeking to "reclaim" the party for what he views as its natural place on the left.

Far from the personality disputes of Brown and Blair - co-architects of the New Labour project - and the host of minor acolytes lining up to "renew" New Labour, McDonnell stands in the traditions of Nye Bevan and Tony Benn; popular, radical and caring politics rooted in the great dichotomy of left and right.

Perhaps more than any other left-wing party in the world, the importance of political and class culture has dominated the British Labour Party since its formation as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 by Keir Hardie. The cultural ethos of the labour movement, built from the early years of the 20th century, focused on the transformation of society itself by the combined efforts of working-class people represented in their workplaces by trade unions and in parliament by Labour.

While he is recognised as a hero to many on the left nowadays, Keir Hardie's chairmanship of the party was in sharp opposition to Marxists in the Social Democratic Federation, an important component in the early Labour Party. Mass membership and mass support for the party came within a few years but this did not necessarily imply radicalism. Indeed, the first ever Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, rejected the socialism and pacifism of his early days in Parliament when he became leader of a minority government in 1924.

Any chances of re-election to Government were halted by the infamous Zinoviev letter, a forged document purporting to come from the USSR and calling for Soviet-style Communism in Britain. The forgery was printed in the Daily Mail - now, and then, a reactionary Tory paper with a particular distaste for any form of socialism (and, coincidentally, the Irish). Ramsay MacDonald was opposed by many on the left throughout his leadership, particularly given his opposition to the 1926 General Strike. He was eventually expelled from the Labour Party and formed a national government in coalition with the Tories and Liberals.

The Zinoviev letter and the subsequent controversy highlighted two parallel tendencies which have always restricted the left in British politics - the power of an unsympathetic media, and 'red scare' tactics by the Tories. The degree of 'redness' in the party is a ubiquitous source of controversy; so much so that the history of British Labour since its foundation might best be understood as a conflict between left and right.

A number of other key left-right arguments in the party have taken place over the past 60 years. The landslide post-War election of 1945 gave Labour a huge majority in Parliament, allowing the foundation of the Welfare State and the National Health Service, an institution that continues despite more than a quarter century of attacks by neoliberalism under Thatcher and Blair.

A remarkable feature of this government, led by Clem Attlee, was the attachment felt by ordinary people to Labour; the party had approximately half a million members when they took office in 1945, and over a million when they left six years later.

It is perhaps during Attlee's leadership that the radical left of the party reached its zenith. Nevertheless, Attlee himself was a moderate and his foreign policy - in particular his commitments to massive spending on arms and intervention in the Korean War in 1950 were staunchly opposed by a left wing who increasingly turned to Welsh radical Nye Bevan as its best hope.

Bevan, the archetypal miner-cum-trade union leader, overcame great odds in establishing the NHS in 1948, a feat which remains Labour's proudest ever achievement in government. But he was forced out of the Cabinet after opposing the war in Korea and subsequent challenges to Attlee's successor, the centrist Hugh Gaitskell, bore little fruit. The clashes between Bevanites and Gaitskellites were substantial but the moderates maintained the upper hand while the Tories under an aged Churchill and Anthony Eden retained power.

The next time Labour came to power was 1964, in a slim majority led by another moderate, Harold Wilson. This majority was greater in the 1966 snap election and Labour were in government until 1970. Although many social-democratic social policies were implemented, such as increasing universalism in social welfare payments and legislation on race relations, homosexuality and abortion, the left of the party were largely undermined. By the late 1960's there was enough optimism, however, that the common consensus among ordinary Labour activists was that the "seventies would be socialist." Their hopes were not to be achieved.

The seventies saw positions in government alternate from the Tories, back to Labour under Wilson and then Jim Callaghan, and back again to the Tories. Wilson's successor, Jim Callaghan, was another centrist, and opposed a left that by now included ministers Barbara Castle and Tony Benn. In 1976 Callaghan's government received an IMF loan that was "badly needed" - the loan required the typical privatisation and free-market reforms attached to IMF interventions. The left of the party increasingly rallied around Benn and Michael Foot, a previous editor of the left-wing Tribune newspaper.

The so-called "Winter of Discontent" in 1979 led to the Labour government being well-beaten by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher was to dominate British politics for more than a decade - indeed, some would say that her ideology and style, if not necessarily her party, continue to dominate today.

Tony Benn and others were massively supported by the Labour grassroots membership and pushed through democratic reforms, giving more power to the party conference and arguing for radical reform across the board. Michael Foot's election as party leader in 1980 was a significant victory for the left and, while Benn was narrowly defeated in a significant election for Deputy Leader in 1981, Labour's high standing in polls continued to hold until the beginning of the Falklands War in 1982. Thatcher's star then began to rise, supported by a jingoistic media and a significant split in Labour led by a right-wing opposed to democratic party reforms and left-wing policies.

The "Gang of Four" who initiated the split went on to form the Social Democratic Party, which later merged with a diminished Liberal Party to form today's Liberal Democrats. The SDP were somewhat successful in taking Labour seats in the 1983 election in which hysteria about Labour's manifesto contributed to a significant Tory victory. The manifesto, written by Benn and others on the left, argued for withdrawal from the EEC, nuclear disarmament, abolition of the aristocratic House of Lords and nationalisation of a number of strategic industries.

It was seized upon by the press as an excuse for Labour to "nationalise the corner shops" and, combined with Foot's unpopularity and hugely successful negative campaigning tactics and costly media campaigns by the Tories, led to a landslide defeat. Labour's own right-wingers famously termed the 50,000 word manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history."

While the Bennite left continued to argue for radical reforms, the extreme individualism, far-right social policies and the advent of neoliberal economics under Thatcher were the backdrop for the rest of the eighties. Where Labour was successful - in a number of radical left local government authorities, including the Greater London Council (GLC) - Thatcher's government simply abolished the councils. Two people affected by the abolition of the GLC were its leader, "Red" Ken Livingstone (now London Mayor) and his deputy, John McDonnell.

From the 1983 defeat on the party initiated series after series of reforms which were intended to "modernise" - in practice, moving further and further to a capitalist consensus. Under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, a former left winger who controversially abstained rather than support Benn's election for Deputy Leader, the party expelled the "Militant Tendency," a Trotskyite entrist group who had a number of MP's and control of Liverpool City Council. The media heralded it as a defeat for the left, even though the Bennites, now formed as the Socialist Campaign Group, were not aligned to Militant.

A number of key decisions were taken by Kinnock which were to lay the ground for Tony Blair's leadership a decade later, such as a concentration on the party's and a more centralised structure, giving power back to the leadership and away from the membership. Kinnock's leadership should have culminated in election victory in 1992, but the party were narrowly defeated.

The party swung further to the centre under Kinnock's successor, John Smith, and to the right under Tony Blair, who was elected leader in 1994. The New Labour project was originally intended to defeat the remaining vestiges of the left by coalescing with the Lib Dems but, given the huge unpopularity of John Major's Tory government, instead won a landslide election in 1997. Since then, Blair's centralised leadership, neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policies have dominated and the left of the party, confined to the backbenches in parliament, have suffered with the loss of membership and the "spin" against them from 10 Downing Street and party HQ.

McDonnell's leadership campaign takes place in the context of continued New Labour domination and has, to date, received relatively little attention from a media besotted with the Blair/Brown soap opera. But it has attracted support from across trade unions, the Labour Representation Committee, the Socialist Campaign Group and hosts of public meetings. His candidature is in the historical mould of Bevan and Benn but reflects up-to-date concerns about privatisation, the war in Iraq, the massive military spend and top-up fees for third-level students amongst other issues.

Left and right are complex, changing words, often used to mislead or overly-simplify. But they are far from 'dead', as the pseudo-postmodernists in New Labour would have us believe. John McDonnell's campaign for leadership reasserts the importance of the very basics of socialism - equality, solidarity and democracy - that the right have forgotten or chose to ignore. Only the history of the future will tell us if he and those on the left will be successful in their endeavours.


Born: September 8th 1951 in Liverpool, the son of a docker and shopworker with Irish connections.
MP for: Hayes and Harlington (London)

Positions held: Former Deputy leader of the Greater London Council. Chair of the Labour Representation Committee of ordinary members and trade unionists. Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of 24 Labour MPs. Chair of the "Public Services Not Private Profit" campaign opposing privatisation. Leader of a number of all-party groups in parliament on trade union issues, the Irish and Punjabi community in Britain and endometriosis.

Has rebelled against the Blair Government on: the Iraq War, support for Israel, foundation hospitals, top-up fees, trust schools, civil liberties clampdowns and "anti-terror" laws, high military spending, nuclear weapons.

Controversy: Once claimed that the "deaths of innocent civilians in IRA attacks is a real tragedy, but it was as a result of British occupation in Ireland. Because of the bravery of the IRA and people like Bobby Sands we now have a peace process."

Quote: "New Labour has systematically alienated section after section of our supporters - teachers, health workers, students, pensioners, public service workers, trade unionists and people committed to the environment, civil liberties and peace. Spin and allegations of sleaze are causing decent people to lose trust in our party. This is reflected in lost votes, lost elections, lost members and a Labour Prime Minister having to rely upon Conservative votes in Parliament to force through legislation."

Campaign Website