The Future of the Labour Party

Barbara Wootton

  • Healey’s Eye by Denis Healey
    Cape, 191 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 224 01793 4
  • The Role of the Trade Unions: The Granada Guildhall Lectures by James Prior, Tony Benn and Lionel Murray
    Granada, 96 pp, £1.00, August 1980, ISBN 0 586 05386 7
  • Rank and File by Hugh Jenkins
    Croom Helm, 179 pp, £9.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7099 0331 6
  • The Tragedy of Labour by Stephen Haseler
    Blackwell, 249 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 631 11341 X
  • Labour into the Eighties edited by David Bell
    Croom Helm, 168 pp, £9.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7099 0443 6

Here is a miscellany of books, written before the 1980 Party Conference by authors who have some concern about the future of the Labour Party. Healey’s is a magnificent picture-book strung on a slender autobiographical thread, which he describes as being ‘partly about photography, partly about the world and partly about me’. Although he has included some political anecdotes, the book makes no claim to be a serious discussion of his party’s future, but it does reveal attractive aspects of the author’s personality and interests probably not hitherto widely recognised.

In the Granada Lectures each contributor says just what one would expect him to say. Len Murray reviews the relations between the unions and governments (of either colour) and offers moderate but constructive proposals for the future, while James Prior, also in moderate terms, outlines his view of the role of the unions and describes those changes in the relevant law which are the objective of his own legislative programme. Tony Benn’s contribution is distinguished by its unique style, which reads more like notes for a lecture than the finished article. In a series of short, staccato paragraphs, not obviously linked to any developing theme, he outlines his (not wholly uncritical) view of the structure and functions of the unions in the modern world. I should have thought that this presentation would have been difficult to listen to, but apparently not so, as in thanking him from the chair, Sir Monty Finniston’s first comment was that the lecturer ‘had lived up to his reputation as a political orator’. But nowhere in this lecture does Benn give a hint of the revolutionary, anti-democratic policies which his enemies so readily ascribe to him. On the contrary, he expresses much concern about the threat to democracy inherent in the growth of bureaucracy, both inside the unions themselves and in the nationalised industries; and he concludes that, in the light of its own history, ‘its support for the Chartists and others’, the trade-union movement is not likely to seek the ‘overthrow of a government freely elected’.

Hugh Jenkins, who was Labour MP for Putney for fifteen years till the 1979 Election, has recorded interviews with twenty of his Labour constituents (among them Hugh Stephenson, Business Editor of the Times, and Labour’s recent convert, Peter Hain), adding a prologue and epilogue of his own. This original enterprise is certainly illuminating in its revelation of the reasons why a handful of ordinary people with varied experience belong to, and in many cases are active in, the Labour Party. Their objectives are generally modest and in no case are they revolutionary. A good deal of disillusion is expressed about past Labour governments, but present conflicts within the party do not seem to cause much worry. As one contributor puts it, some of us ‘are concerned to try to make capitalism work humanely’ and some are ‘determined to introduce the new socialist society’. Differences are matters of ‘time rather than of objective’: ‘We all want socialism some time, but some are more impatient than others.’

Stephen Haseler’s approach is very different: no grass-roots research for him. He was active in support of the Social Democratic Alliance, which, he claims, attracted considerable publicity in the mid-Seventies for its ‘robust condemnation of left-wing excesses’. But without offering any evidence, and in spite of the party’s 1918 Constitution or the 1945 Election (to which he makes only a passing reference), he insists that the mass of working-class voters are not, and never were, interested in socialism. In a vitriolic obituary he asserts that ‘hardly anyone who joins the party or works within it does so any longer as part of a commitment to a cause greater than their own individual interest.’ Nor is the Labour machine ‘untainted by corruption’: a ‘number of powerful élites and individuals feed off the Labour machine and in return lend it support’, while ‘at local level Labour becomes further detached from its roots amongst manual workers and their families.’ To all this the party’s right wing is said to respond with speeches of ‘bone-cracking dullness’ compounded with a ‘monumental complacency’ and an ‘incapacity to tap deep feelings within the community, to command authority, awe or respect’.

Much as we may admire Haseler’s command of rhetoric, we are given no reason why his assessment of the attitude of typical Labour voters should be preferred to that of his fellow ‘populist’ Tony Benn, who reads the electorate’s mind in diametrically opposite terms. Benn has also had his moments of hyperbole, as in the programme he offered the Party Conference for the first few weeks of the next Labour government, but he can at least claim that nearly 25,000 electors voted him into Parliament in 1979 in a largely working-class constituency; and anyone who has read the more considered papers and speeches in his Arguments for Socialism, published last spring, will find it hard to believe that the author of the two chapters on democracy in that collection, or of the Granada Lecture reviewed above, is concerned only with his own self-interest. Of course politicians are ambitious, but we can only judge the measure in which they put self before country or party in the light of what they say and do; and, as Haseler must know, accusations of corruption or conspiracy are worth as much and no more than the weight of evidence adduced in support of them.

So with relief we turn to David Bell’s collection of essays by ten academics and the secretary of the Fabian Society, most of whom have had a good deal of varied practical experience at home or abroad. Their names may not be household words even in Labour circles, but without exception they have contributed positive and realistic proposals for the future of the party, covering such topics as economic policy, a plan for planning in a mixed economy, the energy problem, the democratisation of education, the relations of central and local government, race relations, and Britain’s membership of the EEC. For the reader who may have encountered this collection during the storms of the Party Conference and the subsequent leadership election, it is good to know that, in its less publicised background, Labour can still draw on intellectual resources of such high quality.

So where do we go from here, with scant help from most of these books? First we need to remember that, short of some totally unforeseen upheaval, there are likely to be several more Labour Conferences before the next General Election. From the media’s reaction to Blackpool, it might be supposed that the legislative enactment of Tony Benn’s radical programme was as imminent as he (unwisely) made it sound at the Conference. It would not be the first time that Conference resolutions have remained long unfulfilled. For example, although passing a death sentence on the House of Lords has become an annual pastime at Labour Conferences, their Lordships have been required this very autumn to devote two weeks of the Parliamentary Recess to completing the work that the Commons had left undone, as they took themselves off for their additional holiday.

Nor is the Labour Party leader a dictator or the sole author of party policy. Although well-known for his long-standing support of left-wing policies in relation to the EEC and to disarmament, Michael Foot owes his recent election as leader mainly to the fact that he is loved, admired and trusted as an unswerving democrat by colleagues from end to end of the Parliamentary Party; and he certainly sees his role as that of conciliator in the party’s internal disputes: significantly, his close competitor for the leadership, Denis Healey, is his unchallenged deputy.

It is therefore not unreasonable to hope that even the most dedicated supporter of the EEC will not feel it necessary to leave the party forthwith. In three years’ time the European Community may well be an almost unrecognisable image of its present self. The same goes for other policy decisions. The Aldermaston marches came and went, dwindling in the end to a mere trickle. Yet already there has been a significant revival of the belief, even among some who have held high military office, that in a nuclear age this island is totally indefensible, and that life will not be worth living (and probably won’t much longer be lived) in a world in which more and more money has to be spent on more and more sophisticated weapons in order to ensure that these will never be used; and there are signs of a growing revulsion throughout the country against any such prospect. Surely it is premature to assume that in the next few years some international consensus will not have brought mankind to its senses? Meanwhile perhaps we should be grateful to Margaret Thatcher for having won a majority large enough to give her opponents plenty of time for second thoughts.

No doubt a few individuals will break away from the party as they have done in the past, either to plough a lonely furrow of independence, like George Brown, or to yield to the Liberal embrace. But the occasional disillusioned migrant does not make a political party. Moreover, even if gangs of three were to develop into groups of 12 with substantial force, moulding all the bits and pieces into a centre party with a common policy agreeable to everyone concerned and under a generally acceptable leader is not a task to be accomplished overnight. As Shirley Williams reminded us at Blackpool, it may have taken God only seven days to make the world, but he didn’t have to consider other people’s ideas as to how it should be done; nor did he have to raise a lot of money, as must any new party.

In the longer term, many options are still open, and likely to remain so perhaps for quite some time. Towards the end of January, the specially-convened Labour Party Conference is expected to adopt arrangements for the party to ‘widen the franchise’ on which its leader is elected. By all accounts, however, the interpretation of this phrase is likely to be highly contentious. Any resolution put forward by the Party Executive is threatened with a snowstorm of amendments; and it may well be that no agreed new formula will be written into the Party Constitution in January, and that the whole matter will again be deferred until the annual Conference next autumn. But I would be confident that, in the end, whatever formula is adopted will maintain the principle that Members of Parliament, who have to translate party policy into legislation, be protected against having an unacceptable leader thrust upon them. If, however, no decision is reached in January about the ‘wider franchise’, that would, I think, make it almost certain that Michael Foot’s leadership would be extended during the interim.

What is not so certain is whether he will lead the party into the next General Election (and win it!). It is all very well to recall that Gladstone was prime minister in his eighties, but he had already had more than one go at the job, whereas Foot has only held one Ministerial office in one government. When the time comes, he himself may see things differently from how he foresees them now, or, alternatively, he may be rejected in favour of Benn, Healey, Shore or Silkin (listed here alphabetically, not according to my personal prediction or preference) – or someone else still lurking in the wings.

In any case, it should be clear to all that a broad area of agreement still runs right across the Labour Party. The mixed economy, itself largely a Labour creation, testifies to Labour’s conviction, reinforced by current experience, that fifty million people in this small island will not be fed, clothed and entertained as most of us would wish them to be if governments take no positive action to achieve this, but rely on everything being supplied by someone sniffing a profit somewhere. Incidentally, perhaps the stupidest, as well as the most inequitable, example of this laissez-faire doctrine in the present Government’s domestic record was the remission in their first Budget of £1,560 million income tax annually payable by persons with gross incomes of over £10,000 a year, in the naive expectation that the fortunate beneficiaries would use this bonus to stimulate industrial investment, rather than to restore personal standards of living eroded by high tax rates.

Yet preferable though the mixed economy may be to the regime of smash and grab from which it evolved, and which the present Government is busily trying to restore (so far with disastrous results), probably no one in the Labour Party believes that ‘the mixture as before’ is the right prescription for the economy in the Eighties. The ‘right’ and ‘left’ distinction may suggest that different sections of the party have their heads turned in opposite directions. That is not so – as was appreciated by Hugh Jenkins’s constituent already quoted. All are facing the same way, even if there are differences about the speed at which the various groups would wish to travel, the routes which they prefer and the means by which they would tackle obstacles.

Maybe a sprinkling of self-styled Marxists or Marxist-Leninists (a refinement favoured in Stephen Haseler’s book), or even Trotskyites, are burrowing away in local Labour Parties, on union executives or even in the Palace of Westminster. But it is remarkable how seldom those who profess to detect them produce verbatim evidence of their alleged intentions to overthrow democratic government. The labels have become merely terms of adulation or abuse, as the case may be, and should now be dropped or disregarded: even those who proudly bear them can find little in their masters’ voices which is relevant to the changed and changing world of today. Nor is it any credit to their opponents to have allowed ‘activist’ to become a dirty word. Under the Labour Party’s democratic constitution, getting active oneself is the way to tackle sinister activism.

So, having torn up the labels and decided to stick together, democratic Labour Party activists should begin to wrestle in earnest with the problems threatening the party and the country which they must face before the next election. In internal party affairs, relations with the unions must have an early place on the agenda. Historically the party is the child of the unions, but, as generations pass, relations with one’s forbears inevitably change. The maintenance of a special Labour Party-Union relationship is still absolutely vital, not only for financial reasons, but even more because, in its absence, the party would lose its unique contacts with the mass of ordinary working people – and almost 50 per cent of the employed population are still manual workers. Neither the Liberal Party nor any new centre party would have any hope of establishing a comparable relationship. But while there must be close consultation with the unions, this is not to say that they should have a determining voice in the formulation of Labour policy, or that antiquated procedures such as the block vote should not be relegated to the museums where they belong. By all means let delegates from affiliated unions express their members’ views on controversial issues in party policy with which they are concerned. But to allow their voting power to be determined by the numerical strength of the organisations which they represent is the equivalent of giving an MP Parliamentary votes in proportion to the size of his constituency, or of the majority by which he was elected.

This article is no place in which to draft the Manifesto for the next election. Suffice it to say that, whoever leads the Labour Party, reaction against the Thatcher-Joseph policy will certainly stimulate a leftward direction. Among the priorities in domestic policy must be the reconstruction of the shattered welfare state, by the restoration (and indeed improvement) of all social-security benefits, and of health and social services, to be paid for by a more equitable balance of direct taxation: revocation of that £1,560 million bonus to top-level taxpayers might be useful for a start here. High on the agenda also should be government-company planning, as envisaged by the late Government’s neglected White Paper of 1974 under that title, together with the resuscitation of the National Enterprise Board and the redesign of patterns of public enterprise so as to provide for worker participation in management and to eliminate bureaucratic monstrosities. Plans must also be laid for a two-pronged attack on both inflation and unemployment by the incorporation into our economy of a system of pay and price regulation as a permanent feature. And, if that is not enough to be worrying over, let the best brains available devote themselves to inventing methods by which new ‘labour-saving’ technology may lead to the abolition, not of work, but of poverty.

In international affairs, the situation is so fluid and so dangerous that it would be useless or imprudent even to attempt to outline specific areas of policy. We all share the ultimate objectives of peace and international co-operation, but short of these, we can only play it by ear, remembering, as I have already emphasised, that things may look very different in a few years’ time from how they look now.

In the immediate stresses of today many disillusioned Labour Party members will regard this article as optimistic to the point of naivety. They may of course be right: there could be a split. In 1931 there was a split – when Foot was 18 years old, Healey 14, Silkin eight and Shore seven. All Labour’s present contenders for leadership have grown up to prominence since that date. But, as I myself look back to that split, I recall the anguish and the shame, the disrupted friendships, and the funeral orations pronounced over the Labour Party. Yet after one world war and 14 years in the wilderness, a united Labour Party romped back to power with its first clear majority and a programme that was, for those days, dramatically radical. Things move faster now, so if we are mercifully spared the first of the above-mentioned misfortunes, might not history repeat itself at an accelerating pace in respect of the second?