Drifting rightward: the left and the Labour Party

Three lessons from history about labour movements drifting to the right, and how we can guard against it.

One of the biggest fears people have when campaigning for a political party is that, after fighting to get them into power, they disappoint you. That their radical promises are watered down or abandoned. That they capitulate to opposing ideals. That events overtake them. That they inexplicably sell off the Heygate estate on the cheap, getting barely 3% genuinely affordable housing back from the developers.

Often, when we talk about Corbyn’s Labour Party, the fear is that its socialist programme will be defeated in a dramatic show-down with the powers that be. There are enough historical precedents for this to be a serious worry. Most recently, Syriza took power in Greece on a radical anti-austerity platform, but, in 2015, after a face-off with the EU, they were forced to give away all economic sovereignty and enact severe austerity policies in exchange for loans.

But, political parties are also vulnerable to slow, gradual drifts away from their radical beginnings. And because this happens so slowly, it can be very difficult to fight against. This is never a fall from some pure state of innocence. Instead, already-existing conservative tendencies grow, inch by inch, eventually smothering whatever radical potential was there before. The risk of this happening within the current Labour Party should be obvious, but how we can guard against it is far less clear.

Chasing votes in ‘White Australia’

The Australian Labor Party were one of the first, and for a long time the most successful, labour parties in the world. Founded as a series of state parties in the 1890s, they won 16% of the national vote in the first federal election in 1901. At about that time, the UK Labour Party was struggling to get over 5%. The early Australian labour movement was a broad coalition, but it contained several groups with real hostility towards non-white workers and many of the early unions had colour-bars. This racism was particularly targeted at Chinese immigrants and the Melanesians who worked on Queensland’s sugar plantations. Officially these were indentured labourers, but, more often than not, they were actually victims of kidnapping (or “blackbirding”) and were subjected to vicious racist attacks. This racism even had a home in the explicitly socialist parts of the movement. William Lane, a leading Australian socialist, wrote a weekly column under the pseudonym “Lucinda Sharpe”, where he would express horror about the dangers of sexual contact between white women and people of colour.

Although these views were widespread, when the Labor Parties were founded in the early 1890s, their early platforms barely addressed issues of immigration or “White Australia”. All that changed in 1900, when the federal party, the ALP, made race their central concern, calling for “total exclusion of undesirable alien races” and “racial purity”.

This transition followed a cruel logic of popular support, where already-existing racist tendencies within the movement were foregrounded by their apparent success. In 1878 one of the most important of Australia’s new unions, the Seamen’s Union, went on strike against the employment of Chinese sailors at below union rates. The anti-Chinese aspect of the strike won it support from the middle class public and eventually even the government. This strategy was used again in a strike in 1885 and then picked up by other unions like the Amalgamated Miners Union and the shearers. From the unions, these views crossed over into the parties. The ALP’s by-election victory in Bundaberg in 1892 was reported by the Australian Worker newspaper as a victory for a “white labor candidate” in an election that was “purely black and white”. By 1901, racism had become a key part of the ALP’s cross-class appeal. And in 1910, they won the federal election, forming the first full labour government anywhere in the world and inaugurating a “White Australia” immigration policy which lasted into the 1950s.

The UK Labour Party has its own history of racism from which I’ll take just two examples. In 1919 Manny Shinwell, a leading unionist, incited a race riot against thirty black sailors on Glasgow’s docks and actively campaigned for a colour-bar for sailors. He served six months in jail and then went on to serve as a Labour MP from 1922 until 1970. It was also a Labour government that took away the British passports of thousands of British Asians in the 1960s, many of whom had been encouraged to travel to Britain’s east African colonies to work on the railways. Shocking as these incidents were, they make sense in the context of a labour movement born in the shadow of Empire. As Satnam Virdee has argued, “through the granting of political reforms and the guarantee of relative economic security between the 1850s and 1940s, the British elites ideologically incorporated ever larger components of the working class into the imagined nation… what accompanied this elite process of reform was that slowly but surely those workers to whom such elite privileges were granted began to imbibe an idea of the British nation underpinned by its notion of a singular people united by race and religion”.1

Suspicion and hostility to migration remains deeply entrenched to this day. And, as in Australia, it is often supported by an insidious logic of electability. But it’s worth looking more closely at the Australian case. The ALP made “White Australia” its key selling point and out-flanked all other parties on racial issues. In contrast, Ed Miliband’s attempt to appear ‘reassuring’ on immigration was a total failure. And groups on Labour’s right, from Stephen Kinnock to Chuka Umunna, who continue to push for a tough line on immigration, need to recognise that Labour should never, and will never be able to, outbid the Tories or UKIP on immigration.

The New Deal: Co-option and control

As well as chasing votes, there are other ways that parties can drift away from their radical beginnings. Today, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is often celebrated as a left-wing response to economic collapse. But, the New Deal coalition that he put together reveals a complicated pattern of collaboration and co-option, which neutralised many of the more radical elements within it. It’s worth noting the wider context of his presidency: the Great Depression of the 1930s had shifted American public opinion dramatically to the left, and strong local movements developed, winning governorships and Senate seats in Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York. The American Socialist and Communist parties also grew, with the latter gaining 90,000 members by the end of the decade. In the run-up to the 1936 election, leading progressive voices like Huey Long and Robert La Follette were flirting with the idea of running on a ‘Share-Our-Wealth’ ticket, and Roosevelt’s private polls showed that this could cost him three to four million votes.

This was a serious worry. The last and only time the American labour movement had backed a third party, led by Robert La Follette, had been in 1924. That hastily organised third-party campaign won 16.6% of the vote, taking millions of votes away from the Democrats. This experience taught the Democrats not to completely alienate the unions, but the labour movement never again took advantage of the position of strength that being outside the main parties gave them.

Roosevelt responded to the left-wing challenge of the 1930s by shifting his rhetoric and adopting several of the most popular progressive policies. He pledged to reduce inequality and, in conversations with anti-capitalist groups, started talking openly about “throw[ing] to the wolves the forty-six men who are reported to have incomes in excess of one million dollars a year”. He also started recruiting radical leaders into his New Deal coalition, offering them federal patronage and Democratic Party support. By the time of the election, most of the leading progressive voices were on his payroll.

Roosevelt won reelection with a landslide, but his second term proved to be a disappointment.. Partly this was because the Supreme Court struck down several planks of his New Deal strategy and also because public opinion started shifting to the right after 1938. But, in large part, this disappointing second term was because the pressure of a left alternative vanished. In the 1938 midterms, the local radical parties suffered crushing defeats, partly due to their association with the stalling New Deal programme. Roosevelt wrote that, although he regretted the Republican gains, “we have on the positive side eliminated… [the] Third Party threat”. We also shouldn’t forget that, while he was neutralising the left, Roosevelt also brought conservative elements like southern whites and Catholics into his coalition. This meant he refused to support anti-lynching bills and, aware of the Catholics’ pro-Falangist leanings, he also refused to act against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. This kind of co-option is not unique to the Democratic Party. Right-wing Labour leaders have often given notable figures from the left positions in Cabinet. For them it was win-win: a few isolated voices couldn’t shape policy, but they’d still have to support it as part of Cabinet’s ‘collective responsibility’.

Westminster drinking clubs

I want to return to Labour Party history here, because the early experience of the first Labour MPs is a useful example of a different way that politics can drift. The Labour Party was not founded as a socialist party. From the start, it was designed as a broad church which aimed to give the labour movement an independent voice in Parliament. Within this broad church there was a clear dominant voice, one which Simon Hannah calls the ‘integrative’ tendency. For that dominant voice, the point of the Labour Party was to incorporate the interests of the labour movement into the establishment, without rocking the boat too much.

This tendency was entrenched and reinforced by the experiences of the first Labour MPs in Parliament. The imposing and alienating architecture, the ‘old boys club’ feel of the place, the emphasis on socialising (and especially drinking) with other MPs, and the invitations into London’s high society gave many Labour politicians a place within the establishment. David Kirkwood, one of the socialist ‘wild men’ who were elected in 1922, wrote that before entering Parliament he knew little of ‘the Great Ones, the Powerful Ones, the Lordly Ones’. However, he quickly discovered that they were ‘so simple and unaffected and friendly’ that he ‘had to shake myself occasionally as I found myself moving about and talking with men whose names were household words’. Parliament was always the focus of the Labour Party, but it became the exclusive focus because of this socialisation, where Labour MPs found their own space within the comfortable surroundings of the Palace of Westminster. As Nye Bevan explained, “the vaulted roofs and stained-glass windows, the rows of statues of great statesmen of the past, the echoing halls, the soft-footed attendants and the whispered conversation, contrast depressingly with the crowded meetings and the clang and clash of hot opinions he has just left behind in his election campaign. Here he is, a tribune of the people, coming to make his voice heard in the seats of power. Instead, it seems he is expected to worship; and the most conservative of all religions – ancestor worship”.

This continues today because most MPs only really know about a few, narrow policy areas. They have specific causes that they care deeply about and that motivate their politics, but they can’t be experts in every field. This means that they rely on charities, think tanks and lobbyists to shape their views in other areas. These organisations create the common-sense of Westminster, influencing MPs, their staff and the Civil Service. Currently that space is dominated by broadly neoliberal policy groups, whose influence is spread through the social hubs of Parliament.

A strategy for the future?

Vote-seeking, co-option and socialisation can all gradually blunt the radical edges of party politics. And we need a strategy to limit this. So far, most of the discussion on Labour’s left has focussed on the idea of a ‘social movement party’, or what John McDonnell recently described as ‘going into government together’.

The first plank of this is the idea of an active party base keeping MPs in check, maybe through mandatory re-selection. This might help deal with the problems of co-option and socialisation, although it will need to be part of a wider project to build a broad, pluralistic, socialist bloc. It’s also worth remembering that in the USA, senators and representatives have to re-stand for nomination every election, sometimes in ‘open primaries’ where anyone living in the area can vote. Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent victory in a Democratic primary in the Bronx has been heralded as a sign of the radical potential of open primaries, many other radical candidates have lost to establishment figures. Over the long run, mandatory re-selection in the Democratic Party hasn’t done much to stop the slow march to the right and, historically, more democratic selection of candidates in Labour has not overwhelmingly favoured the left. Most worryingly, back in 2010, it allowed the Tea Party to unseat at least eight sitting Republicans who weren’t seen as sufficiently right wing. This year, Trump-backed candidates have swept past Republican moderates in almost every contested primary.

The second way that a social movement party might help is by mobilising supporters onto the streets. South American left-populist leaders have tried to use this to fight back against reactionary counter-attacks, but it might prove difficult to use marches and demonstrations against slow and gradual processes. Fundamentally, there might be a disconnect between the episodic nature of social movements and the institutional stability of political parties.

The third plank of John McDonnell’s ‘going into government together’ is the idea that we can crowdsource policies using the expertise and experience of members. This could prove to be a powerful tool, especially if it leads into the development of more organised, member-led working groups. But it does depend on a friendly leadership who are willing to listen to members. Until we can build an alternative ecosystem of socialist policy centres and find ways of communicating their ideas effectively, the ideological dominance of neoliberalism within the world of policy wonks looks set to continue.

Ultimately, there might be ways in which a ‘social movement party’ could work against this slow drift to the centre, but it’s not really clear what that would look like yet. And, while keeping Labour to the left on issues like austerity and the NHS should be straightforward, there are other areas where the pressure of Westminster insiders and the temptation to chase marginal votes will be harder to confront. Building a socialist party fit for the 21st century will be a delicate process of institutional design, trial-and-error and experimentation. But, the first step should be learning from the mistakes of the 20th century.

  1. Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Other, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014, p. 5