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.

Mr Mitchell argues for a mighty shake-up of the Party organisation, more populist policies, a return of the list of proscribed organisations, and an electoral pact with the Liberals. It is an approach that will not leave a hackle unraised in the Party, but he will have rendered the Party a singular service if he concentrates a few minds on the inadequacy of present policy-making and modes of organisation. The former, he writes, ‘is a symbol to be fought over and a key to the soul of the Party rather than to Number 10 … Usually we trade slogans and blood and the whole process gives every possible hostage to fortune. Some of them, such as nationalisation of the fifty largest companies or the banks, become better-known than the eventual product.’ The main reason for Labour’s swinging between mild unpopularity and serious unpopularity at the last four elections has been its ineffectiveness against, or contribution to, continuing economic decline. But another factor has been the fear of ‘extremists’, assiduously cultivated by the mass media, and deriving from the association of the Party with impersonal state power, even collective tyranny. A party which allows itself to be obsessed with the act of nationalisation, as if the expropriation of 500 monopolies by the state would bring the citizen more control over his own life, and which is associated with strong unions using monopoly power as well as with struggling weaker ones, may well be misunderstood. The crowning irony came at the last election when, helped by a tendentious press, plutocrats were allowed to posture as champions of liberty, against a party that was born of a desire to liberate the common man from his bondage.

There is nothing new about Labour’s blind spot. Fifty years ago exactly, in The British Labour Party, one of the best books ever written on the subject, Egon Wertheimer (then London correspondent of the German SPD paper Vorwarts) suggested that

British Socialism will regard its main task as fulfilled when the transfer of the means of production to the ownership and control of the community has been effected. It appears to be prepared to acknowledge the old traditional distribution of work … The Marxian Socialism of the Continent, on the other hand, regards it as one of its chief tasks to alter the relationship of the individual workman to the productive process in which he participates.

To the worker, and to the citizen, state power seems just as remote and alienating as private power, with no greater ability to give him more say in his own destiny. Labour has paid a heavy price for ignoring this in the past, but there are signs that the election post-mortems are paying the matter some attention. The patient collapsed from a chronic failure of community spirit: resuscitation will not be easy. According to Austin Mitchell, ‘we are seen as the party of the state monoliths, but must emerge as the party of diversity, pluralism, decentralisation and small scale, by presenting the human face of socialism.’ These are all fine phrases, but how can they be taken further?

In their different ways, from what would be thought (not always appropriately) the left and right of the Labour Party, Tony Benn and Evan Luard have written books dedicated to restoring the human scale of socialism. Away from the cheap applause and backstairs intrigues of the Conference, the Party may find the common ground where these two meet. Tony Benn’s book is something of a Chinese meal – an attractive medley of dishes, which don’t fill you for very long. This is because it largely consists of edited speeches – like the man himself, warm, clearly-phrased, but neither deep enough to satisfy his more discerning fans nor dotty enough for his enemies. Mr Luard’s book is far more intellectually rigorous: he is as great a loss to the Parliamentary Labour Party as he ought to be to the electors of Oxford. Taken together, the books point to the way Labour could regain mass support, as the party of community socialism – the only reasonable alternative to the way we live now.

Evan Luard accepts that socialism has lost its bearings as a force for moral persuasion because it is identified with bureaucracy and state power, rather than involvement and community ownership. It has therefore been easy to parody in a hostile environment where ‘the values of a commercial, even a fully capitalist, society continue to dominate everywhere.’ There are organisations (and unions) founded by socialists – the Co-op, for instance – which respond to such values, and which are very far from being today what their founding fathers intended. Inequalities of wealth and power, between individuals, between organisations, and between states, grow apace.

Luard argues for a change in the ownership of capital, a fostering of community enterprises, and a deliberate encouragement of diversity. The individual capitalist is not the real villain today. The greatest wealth and power are vested in those who control the new shareholdings: the insurance companies, pension funds, and unit trusts who buy and sell pieces of paper, not because they have particular knowledge of some enterprise – much less concern with how their actions will affect its well-being – but in order to make a profit with the minimum of risk. Mr Luard is not the first to wonder why socialists have not sought to alter this, except by nationalisation: ‘For if it is illogical that individuals who never see an enterprise, and never go near it, and contribute nothing to its success, should be regarded as its owners, it is almost equally mystifying that those who do go near it, and spend their lives within it, and whose efforts determine its success or failure, are held to have no share in owning it.’ Mr Luard is a little fuzzy on exactly how shares would be transferred to co-operatives composed of the work-force of each particular enterprise, but that, together with direct involvement in decision-making on the part of each shop-floor committee, is the aim. Differences in wealth between those who work in expanding, profit-making industries and those who do not would be met by a progressive tax system which would also tackle, at last, the great accumulations of unearned wealth.

The central issues here, which nationalisation has so often missed, are to give working people more say in their own lives, and to reduce the sour class divisions and lack of involvement which contribute to the dismal record of British industry. Ritual murmurings about German productivity will not get us very far if we haven’t tried to understand British anomie and its causes. This is familiar Benn territory, too, and that indefatigable tribune is strongest on the power of participation. Arguments for Socialism might more appropriately have been entitled ‘Arguments for Involvement’. As Mr Benn sees it, involvement will lead to socialism. Inevitably, his book will be judged by the emotions he inspires, as well as the arguments it contains. Although it ends with his favourite quotation from Lao-Tzu (which also appeared on the cover of his Fabian pamphlet The New Politics nine years ago), ‘As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence,’ his own existence will have been made all the more noticeable by the appearance of this book ten days before the Party Conference. What does it tell us about the kind of lead he would give, noticeably or not, to revive the Party? Can he see the electorate plain, and our interdependence with the world beyond? How much is he constrained by having to say what the activists want to hear?

First, the good news. As anyone who knows him will testify, he is first and foremost a democrat, not the pop-eyed would-be commissar, Mr Zigzag Loon, created by Bernard Levin and other commentators. He argues that ‘the discipline of the marketplace and the discipline imposed by the top people are both equally unattractive. We believe that the self-discipline of full democratic control offers our best hope for the future, and is the only real answer to inflation, because it confers real responsibility.’ He is ideally suited to argue the case for participation, freedom of information, the elimination of patronage, and the industrial franchise: the areas of Labour’s most inexcusable failures of recent years. On how community control, rather than simple involvement, would work, he has a less sure touch than Luard. No one was more closely involved with the workers’ co-ops set up at Meriden, Kirkby and the Scottish Daily News. They were born out of adversity: ‘until the circumstances were unfavourable, this energy and drive and organisation never emerged.’ It is the business of community socialists to see that it does. Benn’s civil servants certainly tried to strangle the three co-ops, and ultimately they succeeded in doing so: but when they asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to get co-operatives going where they could be successful?’ it can’t have been entirely clear that they were being cynical. All the best examples of a move to co-ownership cited in Luard’s book come from private industry.

Evan Luard wants a wholesale transfer of shares to the total work-force: Benn talks more vaguely of trade-union representatives ‘to sit alongside investment managers in the big financial institutions to see that they are used as a development fund.’ Presumably these would not be the trade-unionists whose own pension funds buy art investments rather than industrial shares. Although he quite properly wants real industrial democracy within the nationalised industries, he also wants civil servants to sit on their boards and effective powers of direction for Ministers. Ministers like the present ones would use such powers to carve up any hesitant attempts at industrial democracy. The most curious paragraphs of all relate to the unions. In eschewing both wage restraint and wage militancy, Mr Benn says, ‘we must move towards free collective bargaining about wages, prices, investment, products, exports, manpower forecasting, and product development.’ Taken together, these are indeed the heart of the matter: and they are too important to be dealt with in the conflict-laden atmosphere of ‘collective bargaining’. The great issue of democracy within the trade unions is discussed in a single paragraph where he says simply that it would be an outrage for ‘an external parliamentary force’ to democratise them. They will do it themselves.

It is as an advocate of democracy within the Labour Party itself that Mr Benn is currently best-known. He has nothing to say about extending these blessings to the Party Conference, but a good deal about the Parliamentary Labour Party. Some of what he proposes is sensible. It is right that the Cabinet should be elected by the PLP (though those who advocate this are often also in favour of removing the PLP’s right to elect its leader), but it remains in doubt whether a stronger PLP would result from the reform package associated with Mr Benn’s supporters. MPs, says Mr Benn, ‘are excluded by our Party constitution from making policy (which is a function of the National Executive)’, but they have in the past known that those whom they elect jointly draw up the party manifesto. If this joint procedure is now done away with, and MPs are also faced with the continual danger of re-selection at the drop of a resolution, they may become a pretty cowed bunch of time-servers. He advocates open ballots for the Cabinet, which would further concentrate Parliamentarians’ minds on ructions in the management committees of their constituencies.

One area where Mr Benn offers broad tolerance is in the matter of ‘entryism’ by Marxists. Unlike Austin Mitchell, he sees no enemies on the left of the Labour Party, and has a mass of quotations to bolster his case for the Marxian strain the Party has always contained. One question he should ask himself is whether an equal tolerance would be afforded to him by hard cases who no doubt see him as the Philippe Egalité of the movement. There are now people within the Labour Party who have no time for the Parliamentary road to socialism, and scant concern for the need to win a majority over to their views.

Why has Labour lost seats recently in areas where the Party has split between rival factions? Mr Benn is silent on this aspect of Party democracy, and it has been little studied elsewhere. The only recent contribution, by a clever but morbidly suspicious Oxford graduate who turned entryism on its head in fighting the opponents of Reg Prentice in Newham North-East, is a shambles of a book. Paul McCormick is as shrill and manichean as those he fought. He writes like Sapper on an off day:

The hall was packed full. And what a horrible sight! There were some terrible faces contorted with rage and hatred for everybody (I suppose they were ‘alienated’). These were the class warriors. It was a dingy decaying building and it was now peopled with these absolutely dreadful characters.

McCormick eventually lost his litigation in the courts against the Newham left-wingers because – you might have guessed – the judge was Tony Benn’s first cousin! The saga of McCormick and the Marxists proves one thing: how easy it is for anybody to manipulate a shrunken constituency Labour Party.

No one can gainsay Mr Benn’s right to tell his followers what they most want to hear. He does it with verve. He has two bites at the Common Market, though I still wonder why, after initially supporting entry, he then became one of the EEC’s most deadly and effective critics. A book which is so largely about democracy might have mentioned the European Parliament, if only to dismiss it; and there is an unhappy chauvinism in his telling the French, German and Italian socialists that, because they regarded the Community as a step forward and much of the British Labour regards it as a step back, ‘Britain is, to that extent, a century ahead of them in democratic experience.’ Austin Mitchell wants to make a crusade against the EEC his principal populist cause. He need look no further than Mr Benn for his leader.

If Mr Benn aspires to lead the Party, and he does, he will have to talk more to the electors in general and to fellow socialists abroad, and give to mankind what he sometimes saves for the faithful at home. Labour has just a few short years to argue that acquisitiveness is not enough, and it now has, to help it, the spectacle of a government trying to prove that the 19th century is alive and well.