Labour Pains

Phillip Whitehead

  • Arguments for Socialism by Tony Benn
    Cape, 206 pp, £5.95
  • Socialism without the State by Evan Luard
    Macmillan, 184 pp, £3.95
  • Can Labour Win Again? by Austin Mitchell
    Fabian Society, 30 pp, £75.00
  • Enemies of Democracy by Paul McCormick
    Temple Smith, 228 pp, £7.50

Great parties are born and not made, and they endure for a long time. The Labour Party came into existence less than eighty years ago. With the tumult of Brighton scarcely over, it may seem unfair to ask if it is still, and can continue to be, a mass party. A party, that is, which has a large and enthusiastic membership of individuals, agreed on the road they are taking even if they differ about the speed of the journey; a party with an accepted forum for debating, refining and presenting policy, enabling it to look outward both to the domestic electorate and to fellow socialist parties abroad. Such a party would have devoted its annual conference not to a struggle for internal control, but to the move ahead, asking not only why so little was achieved by the 1974-9 government, but also why it was in a minority almost from the beginning.

If Labour is to survive as the effective voice of the radical half of this country, there will have to be a far more profound debate than was staged at Brighton: a debate about how the Party is organised, how individuals are converted to its cause, and how, together, they can change the assumptions which frustrate Labour when in office. The first batch of books and pamphlets on Labour’s future is now emerging. Two former Ministers, Tony Benn and Evan Luard, have written books on the case for socialism as a liberating force, capable once more of converting men and women to its cause. Austin Mitchell, one of the few MPs with some training in political science, has described how urgent the task of expanding the Party now is. Mr Mitchell, like Mr Benn, is a populist, for whom no good ever comes out of Brussels, though he is very far from Mr Benn’s broad-Left sentimentalism. Mr Luard, the diffident don, is no populist, but he and Mr Benn speak a common language in appealing to the spirit of community socialism, and he is, in truth, the most rigorously radical of the three. Taken together, these books give one some hope that, at the eleventh hour, the real debate is stirring in Labour’s depleted ranks.

How depleted they are is made devastatingly clear by Austin Mitchell. In the bitter winter of 1978, the last great negative reason for supporting Labour – that it had a relationship with the unions which was the best guarantee of a counter-inflation policy and of industrial harmony – abruptly vanished. Many of the positive reasons had already disappeared under the assault of the IMF and in the face of the endless accommodations of minority government which gave the Party responsibility without power. Now, thrust from office, it may be in a double bind: not trusted enough to be given the majority in Parliament which every Conservative leader since the war has at one time or another enjoyed, and slipping back into policies which a cowed Parliamentary Party may be unable to influence – the reflex kick of the politically dispossessed. In opposition, Mitchell writes, ‘we alienate support by appearing divided, more extreme, ineffective, unreliable – even impotent. Traditionally we have taken every advantage of these opportunities.’ Labour finds it far harder than the Tories to pick up support when in opposition; its share of the total electorate has fallen from 40 per cent in 1951, through 34 per cent in 1959 and 1964, to 28 per cent in 1974 and 1979. It has squeaked into office when the Tories have lost ground massively, but it is not making new converts at even replacement rate.

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