Labour Blues

Ross McKibbin

  • Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party by Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee
    Verso, 344 pp, £9.95, November 1992, ISBN 0 86091 351 1

This in its own way is a formidable book, but not one to hide its argument under a bushel. ‘The book that blows the lid off the Kinnock years’ is how the publisher’s press release describes it. It is the only one ‘to break the conspiracy of silence which has surrounded the rise and fall of the Labour Party under Kinnock’, a man who ‘destroyed the Party’s democratic structures whilst allowing a new careerist clique to install itself in every part of the Labour machine’. The authors ‘expose the machinations of Peter Mandelson ... whose regime and methods can be rivalled only by that of Bernard Ingham’ etc. In fact, although Heffernan and Marqusee have written the book in an ‘openly partisan spirit’ (we ‘have an indictment to make and we make no apologies for pursuing it single-mindedly’) its tone is usually less intemperate than the publisher’s. Yet the press release, if more polemical, is not an unfair précis of the argument. In the authors’ view Mr Kinnock, supported by much of the ‘soft left’, many of the trade unions leaders and a new kind of party apparat, put an end to the Party’s internal pluralism, abandoned their commitment to any kind of socialism, or any sort of principle, foisted on it an opportunist officialdom, encouraged a kind of leader-worship in place of any worthwhile policies, subordinated everything to electoral success, and then, crowning infamy, after all this failed to win the election which was there for the winning. Thus was defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

This is obviously one version of the labour Party’s recent history and other versions could be written. But the authors have given their version considerable weight. They acknowledge the help of a large number of people (usually from one variety of the Left or other), including some who sat on the National Executive of the Labour Party (NEC) and they have had access to Tony Benn’s huge personal archive. They are able to quote verbatim from NEC minutes and the minutes of its subcommittees and have made extensive use of the press and of published material like the proceedings of Labour Party Conferences – when they were still published. The result is a very partisan book but not a lightweight one.

It is a history of the Labour Party’s right wing from the electoral defeat of 1979 to the electoral defeat of 1992. The authors argue that despite the apparent success of the Left within the Party in 1980 and 1981, the Right never really lost strategic control. Furthermore, the change in the way the Parliamentary Party’s leader and deputy leader were elected, agreed at the Wembley Conference in January 1981, and Tony Benn’s subsequent decision to stand for the deputy leadership, increased the determination of the Right to eliminate all factions of the Left from positions of real authority in the Party.

In the authors’ view there were three crucial dates in this process. The first was September 1981, when Kinnock, in an article in Tribune, publicly explained why he would not support Benn for the deputy leadership. In doing so he was able to establish a ‘third camp’ between Benn, the challenger, and Denis Healey, the incumbent: a ‘refuge for beleaguered careerists of both Left and Right’. It was in this camp that the ‘soft left’, springboard for Kinnock’s leap to the leadership, was born. The second date was 1984 – the miners’ strike, ‘the key political event in Britain in the 1980s’. If Scargill and the miners succeeded, Kinnock and the Parliamentary Right would be weakened: if they failed, Kinnock and the Right would be further entrenched. The outcome, the miners’ failure, demoralised the Labour Movement and made it even more dependent on the leadership to win elections. It was a victory both for Mrs Thatcher and Neil Kinnock. The third was the ‘realignment’ of 1985, the moment when the soft left completed its alliance with the Parliamentary Right and the now predominantly right-wing unions. It was this alliance which destroyed the Left, elevated Kinnock and paralysed the Labour Party.

At the same time, the alliance was creating a powerful patronage system based largely on personal ambition and cronyism. Insofar as the beneficiaries had any views they were based on a deep hatred of the Left and a vague feeling that Thatcherism in some form was the way of the future. The authors analyse this system in considerable detail and have produced very interesting results. They demonstrate how far Labour Party and trade-union officials are favoured in the selection of candidates for safe Labour seats, and what an extraordinarily well-provided gravy train student politics is. The Kinnockian Labour Party, they argue, became in effect self-recruiting: a Party dominated by professional politicians chose its allies and successors from organisations dominated by budding professional politicians. It is a pity Heffernan and Marqusee do not acknowledge what a long and distinguished pedigree this analysis has. It is perhaps the most celebrated part of Robert Michels’s Political Parties (originally published in 1911) – ‘who says organisation says oligarchy’ – and self-recruiting oligarchies were, Michels believed, a tendency intrinsic to all modern democratic parties. Defeat from the Jaws of Victory thus stands in a long tradition of a particular socialist critique and it is important to know that.

This system as it developed in the Labour Party had two functions. One was to extirpate opposition to Kinnock within the Party and the other was to rid it of its embarrassing socialist commitments. The first, they argue, was executed ruthlessly and without regard to democracy or fairness. They compare, for example, the treatment of Dave Nellist (who was a famously good local MP) with the blind eye turned to the dubious behaviour of right-wing figures whose only virtue lay in being right-wing. They also contend that the endless fuss over certain Labour candidates, such as Deirdre Wood in the Greenwich by-election (1987), far from strengthening the Party, simply played into the hands of the Tory press by apparently confirming everything it said about local Labour Parties. The ideological parallel to this was the acceptance by the now victorious Right of the main tenets of Thatcherism – an act of ‘crude economism’ the authors call it. They cannot resist a dig at the Communist Party’s partial responsibility for this – and, indeed, a study of the role of Marxism Today in the defeatism of the chattering classes might be fruitful. The indispensable agent of all this, they suggest, was Peter Mandelson, the Party’s Director of Communications (now MP for Hartlepool) and one of Heffernan and Marqusee’s least favourite people.

Kinnock himself emerges from their account an unattractive figure, by turns bullying and panicking. He allowed his entourage to promote him as a charismatic leader but was entirely lacking in charismatic attributes; and he took up and abandoned policies as short-term electoral requirements dictated – ‘he was seen as a man who would do anything or say anything, repudiate any conviction or embrace any prejudice for the sake of a handful of votes.’ In the end it was all for nothing: the crude political calculations and the showy, media-oriented propaganda merely frittered away an election which should never have been lost.

What should we make of all this? In some ways I sympathise with the argument. Like the authors, I believe the Labour Party has apologised far too much, and that this has been politically disabling. Apology has permitted Labour’s opponents to snatch the initiative and hold it, while failing to comfort the electorate, who now believe that Labour is untrustworthy rather than being convinced (as they might have been) that it was right. If ever a party should have been in a position to say ‘we told you so’ it was Labour. It threw that opportunity away by abandoning policies it once might have held – devaluation, for example – and its helplessness on Black Wednesday was the result. The authors could further have made the perfectly reasonable argument that if you are going to lose you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and stick to your principles. But Heffernan and Marqusee believe that the election could have been won and was lost largely because socialist principles were not stuck to. This is surely much more doubtful.

Prima facie it is hard to see why people would vote for a right-wing party on the grounds that the left-wing party they would like to vote for is not left-wing enough. That really would be a case of allowing the best to be an enemy of the good. The authors, like the Left as a whole, never acknowledge just how powerful the obstacles to a Labour victory were, nor how hostile much of England is, not simply to socialism but to any sort of ‘progressive’ politics. The Thatcher Governments succeeded all too well in their restructuring of the electorate; they not only created vested interests to whom any disturbance of the status quo is unacceptable but denuded the public mind, and thus England’s political culture, of almost any sense of the ‘collective’ or ‘social’. Furthermore, the usual instruments of Conservative rule, particularly the press, are now very much more hostile to Labour than they were in (say) the Sixties. Heffernan and Marqusee, as an example of its feebleness, criticise the Labour Party for not exploiting the pensioner vole and the growing militancy of pensioner organisations. But promises to the pensioners were one of the few explicit spending proposals the Labour Party made and, at least this was my impression, these were given wide publicity. There is little evidence, however, that Labour won over pensioners, even though they had been treated by the Conservatives almost as badly as anyone. If they could not win over the pensioners, who could they win over?

Kinnock and the leadership of the Labour Party were aware of this, and it was the knowledge that the path along which they could walk was perilously thin, that there were caverns on either side, which paralysed the Labour Party under his leadership and that of his successor. The extreme caution, and the reluctance to commit the Party to anything that wasn’t entirely anodyne, follows inevitably from the fact that any time you open your mouth or put pen to paper you give a hostage to fortune. Better, then, to remain silent and hone that the failings of the government will be self-evident to the electorate. It was also this fear that determined the Party’s managers to control all situations and to give Mr Kinnock no opportunity to blunder. Hence the panic – his and theirs – whenever they lost control.

Nor do the authors ever allow for tactical considerations Labour’s real problem is not so much that it should do when in office as to how it can get into office at all. What political parties do in office is frequently very different from what they say they will do (see Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major); it has always been understood that if a party has to dissemble to gain office then it will dissemble. It was not unreasonable to think that the English electorate disliked the Conservatives but distrusted Labour. If, therefore, labour had to pretend to utter respectability to win the electorate’s support then it must be utterly respectable, What it did in office is another matter. As it happens, I think that Labour would have been as utterly respectable in office as in opposition, but the Roosevelt Administration is an example of tactical moderation: the eventual course of the New Deal could not have been predicted from Roosevelt’s cautious campaign in 1932. Heffernan and Marqusee do not allow for this possibility. In their view the Labour Party’s political trimming is always due to careerism – ‘the pursuit of personal preferment’. No doubt much of it was; but that is politics. Careerism is an essential part of any political system; it becomes dangerous when the careerists exceed certain understood boundaries in ‘pursuit of personal preferment’. The authors have not persuaded me that the Labour Party’s leadership did go beyond those boundaries.

Labour might not have won the election, but it greatly reduced the Conservatives’ Parliamentary majority. One of the reasons the present government cannot behave with the same arrogant insouciance as its predecessor is because its freedom of manoeuvre is much less. The contempt the Thatcherites apparently feel for it is due largely to the fact that its majority is much smaller than hers. This represents a real gain and the Labour recovery, however partial, is responsible for it.

It has to be said, finally, that Heffernan and Marqusee are much too coy about what policies they think the Labour Party should have followed. They insist that their book is a study of the Right, not of the Left, and that the onus is not, therefore, on them to give their view. That is defensible as far as it goes, but the actions of the Left, particularly in 1980 and 1981, are themselves part of the story. They admit that the Left made mistakes; and they recognise (they say) that the Labour Party needs to do more than adopt left-wing policies and make Tony Benn leader (‘although these would be a start’). They do not, however, recognise how much damage the Left did to the public reputation of the Labour Party in the early Eighties. It may be that the Left was misreported, traduced or denied a fair hearing; but then so was Mr Kinnock. The Right, however much it overreacted to the events of 1980-1 or to the defeat of 1983 (and I agree with the authors that it did overreact), at least saw that the Party simply could not go on in the same way if it wished to be a serious contender for power. If the Kinnockian policy of approaching the electorate on its terms failed, if allowing the Party’s programme to be dictated by what the bulk of the electorate was understood to have wanted didn’t work, how can it be argued that the policies of the Left, of whatever kind, could have been more successful? To say, as they do, that the book is about the Right, not the Left, is no answer to that question.

That does not, of course, exonerate the Right. Heffernan and Marqusee have established a pretty powerful, though hardly constructive, case against the way the Labour Party has been run in the last few years, and it deserves to be read. Like them, I believe the Party is paralysed and must cease to be paralysed; like them, I think now is a good time to try moving; but, alas, unlike them, I do not think adopting left-wing policies and electing Tony Benn leader would be a good start.