Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Has Labour become a "hard left" political party?

Anthony Painter has just articulated why Labour may split.  Anthony is an influential figure within the party. His book, "Left without a future?" contains many thoughtful and interesting ideas, particularly around "predistribution". Anthony is very much a pragmatist.  His assessment of where the party currently is appears to be widely shared, and as such is deserving of scrutiny.

He makes two key points in his latest blog- a post that the Guardian is linking to.

"The evidence is that the Labour Party is now a far left socialist party. It was previously a soft left social democratic party.... This leadership election – whether Smith or Corbyn wins – is likely to reinforce this fact."

Anthony uses the word "fact". So what factual evidence is there that Labour is now a "far left socialist party"?

To answer this, we need to ask "what is the far-left?"

The UK left has always been dominated by those of us who believe in a mixed economy. These people believe in reforming and shaping capitalism.   Then there's the "hard left" - the "revolutionary left" of the SWP, or the democratic Marxists who want the complete eradication of capitalism.

There is not a single MP or Labour affiliate that wants capitalism completely abolished.  The "hard-left" in 2016 is a fragmented assortment of bitterly divided small groupings.

There can be no more than 5000 "hard left" activists across the UK. There are perhaps a dozen or so "hard left" activists in each constituency. They are being very vocal indeed and may be making some "coup" MP's feel very uncomfortable.  There are (and have always been) SWP banners at mainstream left gatherings....perhaps giving some the impression they are well supported...when in truth they are far, far from it.

Jeremy Corbyn is currently talking about tax-breaks and equal pay audits.  The stuff of revolution?

What are the "hard left" policies or long term Marxist ambitions of the Labour Party? No, I don't know either!

The "hard-left" is wholly absent from mainstream UK politics. In view of this fact, it can only be nonsense to say that Labour is now "far left" or "hard left". OK, we've got large differences on foreign policy and defence, but within the Social Democratic tradition, that's nothing new.

The terms "far" or "hard" left are being very casually used, causing untold electoral harm to our prospects.  The frightening sounding charge that we are "hard left" is unhelpful and untrue.

But Anthony's sincere belief of "far left" takeover leads him and others to a dangerous conclusion:

"For members and party representatives a key question will emerge: do you want to remain in a far left party or do you believe you can change it back to its social democratic ethos?"

I'm a bread and butter Trade Unionist, proud that in private sector workplaces we deliver a fairer share for workers of the wealth they create. That's a part of what makes me a Social Democrat / Democratic Socialist.  I haven't changed, and I've been in the party 19 years.  The affiliates haven't changed.

Members haven't changed either, albeit that there's now shed loads more of them.  Widespread talk of "entryism" is greatly wide of the mark, and is not supported by rational evidence.

We are still a Social Democratic party, albeit one that's building a clearer identity about who we are and why we are so passionate.   Passion and direction have both been absent for a long time, yet both are a necessary part of any movement.  

For twenty years, the party has been dominated by decent pragmatists - the ones who are 100% focused on electability, and how best we manage the Social Democratic society our movement built. It's been about seriously and authentically being a party of government, or a serious party of opposition that is ready to govern.

Labour is now controlled by those who felt airbrushed and excluded from the party during this time.  Now we have vision, and talk about "why" rather than "how".   Without the "why", core support has drained away (still is draining), and millions don't know what we are for. We've lost two elections, lost Scotland, and it's obvious to most members that the party establishment has no answers.

Pragmatic / moderate centre-left parties across Europe are losing support at an alarming rate.  It's politicians with clear and passionate beliefs that are surging in popularity.

Finally we are talking about what we are for, and the big issues that need addressing. Why we are passionate.  What sort of society we want. Vision. What we are against. People are flocking to join.  It isn't a cult based around one evidenced by almost the same thing happening in America.

I can understand why many feel they are getting their party back, and why others feel they are losing it.  But I see this as a yin and yang situation. A campaigning movement or a party of government? tTimes change, and to my mind it's clear that we must be both.

There's a real power struggle over the extent to which policy rests with the members or the PLP.  But this debate does not mean we are no longer a Social Democratic party, nor does it mean Labour suddenly disagrees with the parliamentary route to power.  Mass membership may mean that we can begin to build new ways to influence or set the political agenda, irrespective of whether the LP is in power. Mass membership is the strongest possible bulwark there is against entryism, and all of us ought to be delighted at the dramatic surge in ordinary people joining us.

The public and the party need to see the visible yin and yang of sensible moderates and passionate socialists working together. We don't have to like each other, but the millions that need us demand we work respectfully together. We need a split like we need a hole in the head.  Whatever the outcome of the leadership election, there will be no good reason why Social Democrats should leave the party.


  1. Hi Rick,

    Thoughtful as ever. Let me articulate what I think to be the key distinction between between far/soft left and then consider where the party is. For me, the *key* question (and for you also from your thoughts above) is 'do you think capitalism should be reformed or replaced'? This for me is where social democracy and socialism differ. We call ourselves a democratic socialist party but I've always thought this to be a fudge. Labour has been a social Democratic Party for most of its postwar history. Funnily enough, on this Tony Benn and I are in complete agreement.

    So the key question is whether Labour is passing reform to replacement. I agree that from a policy perspective that it is still in the 'reform' camp. However, ideologically it is passing towards replacement. There was a very interesting exchange between Marr and John McDonnell on Sunday where McDonnell articulated that he believed in 'public control' of the economy. Personally, I believe in an economy that is structured to safeguard the public good- including great common ownership, collective institutions, strong trade unions etc. That is very different to public control. I don't think there is a public control ideology that is compatible with a predominantly market economy.

    So, ideologically I fear we have crossed the rubicon. McDonnell is just one voice but if we were to ask Labour's membership 'would you prefer to have an economy under public control or one that was a market economy that we sought to influence in the public good'? the results may be interesting.

    You are right that my use of 'fact' was too strong. And could not agree more that Labour needs to be a working people's movement allied to the parliamentary method. By the way, a number of others have questioned my use of far left as you have - so it's a lively debate. Thanks for your comradely blog.

    1. Cheers Anthony. Words can mean so many different things - "Equality" has virtually become meaningless.

      I saw that interview with JM too, but didn't take it the way you did. I think you saw it as "publically owned". I was comfortable with his words, as I thought he meant things like "we will make sure enough houses get built if the market doesn't....we will ensure bosses who steal pensions are dealt with as criminals...we won't allow the only bus to the village to be scrapped" etc etc

      The extent to which we "control" (I think he meant "regulate") is within the Social Democratic tradition. Let's remember, he has also stressed "fiscal responsibility", something few within the PLP seem to have given him any credit for

      If we changed your question from "economy under public control" to "public ownership of private companies" we would get a massively different result

      Remember when TB boasted to the CBI that our union laws are in breach of our minimum international treaty obligations under the ILO? On that issue, he wasn't a Social Democrat and wasn't consistent with our principles as a party. I think what we seeing now is a phase we need to go through of party supporters insisting that the PLP stops straying too far from the script

      Although the wider electorate might not care, I think it's workers rights that will determine whether we split or not. A permanent party commitment to workers rights would virtually guarantee unions stay onboard. Without it, why should unions stay?

      It's often forgotten that it was unions who stopped the Fabians from putting the word "socialist" into the party name when it was created. Unions were seen as the "bulwark of the labour right" for most of last century. Unions are deeply small c conservative and haven't changed. The PLP has changed - and has changed way too much for most members old and new

      We are seeing an adjustment, and on balance, that should be a healthy for the long term

  2. Paul Cotterill28 July 2016 at 16:59

    I thin it's perfectly possible to interpret John McDonnell's "public control" of the economy as being very similar to what Anthony wants, and I fear Anthony is doing a bit of the old confidence bias thing - assuming what John says is confirmation of what Anthony thinks of John.

    I disagree pretty fundamentally that the Labour membership has veered dramatically towards Rick's "passionate socialist" (and of course I disagree, as a sensible socialist that this and "sensible moderate" are mutually exclusive.

    1. Hi Paul and thanks for posting.

      I agree with you, and hadn't meant to suggest the make up of party members has changed. I think we are a well educated, well informed & sensible lot!