If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars

Calls to give up distinctively socialist policies for short-term tactical gain are mistaken. The left can learn as much from 2017 as 1983.

In the wake of Labour’s 1983 defeat, the leading lights of the New Left and others—including Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn—contributed to a book called The Future of the Left (Polity Press/the original New Socialist) to fight back against a near-unanimous media demand for a return to “the middle ground”. Read as a message in a bottle sent by those who watched the new neoliberal era coalesce to those of us currently witnessing its elongated crisis, we can and must learn from those debates and what transpired after them if we aren’t to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Labour Together’s semi-official 2019 election analysis, featuring voices from Labour’s right and soft left, will be out soon to settle scores and to be combed by the media looking for a new “longest suicide note in history” cliché, but the left cannot allow the myth to take hold again that socialism is to blame and that future success will depend upon the Party ditching all of, or even the leftmost elements from, the manifesto.

As in 1983, we have seen predictions of the end for the Labour Party, anxiety about shifting class compositions of Labour and Conservative voters, and calls for coalitions to staunch the anti-Tory majority’s losses. But conceding ideological ground in the wake of defeat did not deliver electoral success then and the arguments for doing so are even weaker today. In 1983 the left did not—at least, arguably not since the Alternative Economic Strategy—have a worked-out solution to the crisis of the collapsed post-war settlement; the right had the wind in their sails intellectually in a way that, Brexit notwithstanding, they simply don’t now and haven’t since the crisis of the neoliberal settlement ten years ago.

On first look, there are many elements of the situation in 1983 which resonate today. Then, as now, the Conservatives’ response to an economic crisis had brutal human consequences, yet they succeeded in exploiting a nationalist opportunity to rout a Labour opposition divided over policy, leadership and reselection. Squinting hard, one could mistake the 2010s for a re-run of the early 1980s recession but with the ‘adjustment’ forced on wages rather than employment. Neil Kinnock was persuading the left of a “remain and reform” European vision that prefigures Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25; James Curran fretted about the left’s obsession with Fleet Street while new media were appearing and flourishing.

But there are many more significant differences between now and then. The left was much stronger in 1983, having not yet suffered forty years of defeats under neoliberalism. The miners and printers had not yet been smashed, and trade union membership, though arguably beginning its decline, was nonetheless close to historic highs—around twice today’s level. More propitiously for the Conservative government, North Sea oil was flowing ever more freely, helping to mask other economic problems. And a simplistic story of two left-led Labour leaderships wrestling unsuccessfully with European and nationalist issues amidst centrist splits obscures significant differences. Michael Foot, having been James Callaghan’s deputy, was elected leader on a unity ticket rather than on a left manifesto from the backbenches. Most of the labour movement in 1983 saw the European Union as a constraint rather than a bulwark. Mike Gapes and Chris Leslie are not Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, and Michel Barnier is not General Galtieri.

The narrative backdrop to The Future of the Left was one in which Labour seemed doomed to hold a shrinking base of manufacturing workers in industrial northern England, Wales and Scotland. Contributors agonised over whether the Party could ever break out beyond its ‘heartlands’ rather than over losing them. 42% of 18-24 year olds and 46% of female voters had just voted Conservative. While Labour was routed across Britain, the Scottish Labour Party nevertheless returned 41 MPs in 1983, while only one in eight Labour MPs represented a London constituency: a proportion which has doubled since. (The dramatically different paths taken by Labour in London and Scotland since 1983 should indicate a picture far more complicated than Leave vs. Remain).

In some respects things are worse now, with ‘heartland’ seats lost and little evidence of a realignment happening fast enough to compensate elsewhere. A larger vote share in 2019 than 2010 and 2015 secured a much worse result thanks to the constituency-level effects of the Conservatives’ incorporation of Farageism, and it would be wrong to be complacent about today’s young voters remaining on the left.

Existential questions are being asked about the viability of Labour’s electoral coalition, and even Labour’s future as a political project. Lisa Nandy’s leadership campaign has been powered by metaphorically grabbing the membership by the lapels and yelling “do you realise how serious this is?” (accompanied by no discernible solution beyond “all power to the Labour Groups”), though successive elections have now been lost by the right, centre and left of the Labour Party, and Jeremy Corbyn remains the only leader since Tony Blair to make a net seats gain for Labour at a general election.

But this handwringing over class identification detaching from political alignment was already evident in 1983: John Westergaard noted both the falling proportion of manual workers within the population as a whole and a decreasing vote share among that group, while Labour was also failing to attract voters in the expanding “‘white-collar’ and ‘white-blouse’ groups” or among public sector workers. This was not new even then: according to Richard Hyman, “the class basis of party choice [had] steadily weakened over the last quarter century”. And, in contrast to today, there was a strong story emerging about Labour’s failure to appeal to the young, with Philip Cohen claiming that the swing away from Labour was more marked amongst first-time voters than amongst other age-groups, a disconnect illustrated by a quote from a Clydesdale shop steward about the young spending their time on ‘drugs and discos’:

The labour movement fought for 50 years to ensure lads like these got a decent education. Now it looks as if they’ll be fighting for another 50 to get out of it.

Banquo’s ghost in The Future of the Left was played by Eric Hobsbawm, whose Forward March of Labour Halted? and Labour’s Lost Millions are mentioned throughout, and the absence of an equivalent to Marxism Today now is noticeable, for better and for worse. For some, the disaster of 1983 was merely the expression of a longer-term existential threat. Building on Hobsbawm’s arguments in his crabby Marching into history?, Gareth Stedman Jones nevertheless criticised an overly rosy picture of the past, claiming that “class consciousness in twentieth century Britain has been a conservative rather than a revolutionary phenomenon”. Ex-Labour voters in today’s focus groups conducted by Lord Ashcroft suggest a deep-rooted disconnect that long predates Corbyn’s leadership.

One notable similarity from reading The Future of the Left is how, just as in 1983, many of us are still grasping for a handle on what it is that we have just lost to. Boris Johnson may be determined to prosecute a culture war while ditching “fiscal discipline”, but questions remain over how deeply committed his Party is to this, with a planned local government settlement that redistributes upwards and widespread grumbling about rumoured tax rises. Barely four years since Theresa May floated compulsory worker representation on company boards, an early promise to ban public sector strikes hardly suggests a straightforwardly leftward shift in economic policy. Divisions within the Johnson coalition have already been on show, with briefing and counter-briefing from and about Dominic Cummings.

David Edgar’s chapter sketched out some similar divisions between economic liberals and social authoritarians on the Tory Right in the early 1980s, noting that the journal of the Conservative traditionalist (arguably quasi-fascist) Monday Club “once called for worker participation in running industry and berated ‘classic liberals’ in the Conservative Party for promoting a heartless and pecuniary capitalism, operating within ‘a social and moral vacuum’.” Roger Scruton had hoped the strengthened “‘sentiments of sovereignty and national honour’ [associated with the Falklands War] … would be reflected in domestic policy, such as that relating to immigration and capital punishment”: his political heirs will be hoping the same thing, but we must never forget that defeats have been inflicted on ‘social authoritarianism’ since the 1980s, and can be again.

Reading The Future of the Left now, we know now that these tensions did not tear Thatcher’s leadership apart, whether due to opportunism or the overstated nature of the differences. But it also reminds us of how the Right had adapted so much more quickly to the economic crises of the 1970s by using the situation as an opportunity to completely restructure the British economy, resolving some problems and laying the foundations for others. The Conservatives’ rapid response to the financial crisis of 2008 did enable a decade of austerity, but the problems it revealed have not been resolved and capitalist growth has not returned.

In 1983, many were still gradually waking up to the idea that Thatcher’s first government was no historical error but the start of a new political epoch, playing out on a pitch rolled by Callaghan. Stuart Hall highlighted the left’s failure to root its understanding of Thatcherism in “a searching analysis of Labour’s own record over the past two decades”:

Paradoxically, she does raise hearts and minds an inch or two because, vile, corrupt, awful as her vision of the future is, we know what it is. We can imagine what life according to the gospel of free enterprise, patriarchal respectability and authoritarian order would be like … The one thing nobody knows is what Labour conceives to be an ‘alternative way of life’. It currently possesses no image of the future. It provides no picture of life under socialism… In its profound empiricism, it has mistaken adaptation to the present as progress towards the future.

It must have seemed to many at the time that the Conservatives’ vision was exciting; it certainly seems to have been tangible, and their economic policies were undoubtedly new; clearly they had succeeded in the eyes of Hall and others in creating a coherent political vision out of the disparate elements within Thatcherism. In 2019, the new ideas and the vision for fundamentally changing the country were Labour’s, yet we were unable to ‘raise hearts and minds’ thanks to a failure to frame that vision, and were trumped by the promise of a Johnson Brexit, which won the support of predominantly older voters with an invocation of “weren’t things better back in the day”—not entirely dissimilar to how Thatcher used nostalgia for ‘traditional values’ to create a more modern-seeming vision than Labour could convey. Anyone for ‘Empire 2.0’?

Thirty-six years ago, Anthony Barnett seems to have misjudged Thatcher as “more the flotsam left behind on the beach by a retreating post-war tide than she is the tide of history itself…over-estimated ideologically and under-estimated economically”, and his chapter is unforgiving about the post-war settlement: “Consensus politics meant restrictive practices writ large, not reform. Its passing should not be lamented”. It’s hard not to hear antecedents of Tony Blair’s ‘forces of conservatism’, or to see parts of the New Left enthusiastically abandoning grey post-war security without providing an alternative as leaving the field open to Johnson and Farage’s successful harnessing of reactionary elements of ‘the past’.

In their chapter, David Held and John Keane explicitly linked that tired, failing post-war consensus to the overweening role of the state. Starting from a strong criticism of actually existing nationalisation in the form of Morrisonian public corporations, Held and Keane end up essentially advocating for free schools, showing where unanchored decentralising instincts can lead. But other contributors didn’t fall into this trap, and it’s important that their criticisms of the state are separated from the knee-jerk anti-statist tendencies on the right and centre of today’s Labour by a long intervening era of privatisation: criticising how publicly-provided public services operate is inherently different to proposing alternatives to public provision. (Doreen Massey, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright reeled off examples of initiatives to implement decision-making by and for those who use and run services within the public sector. The reality of such schemes was a rebuke to those who claim that there is no possibility of participatory, responsive, government-provided services—no doubt one reason why their continued existence could not be tolerated.)

For the New Labour generation of frontbenchers who came after, distancing themselves from the left, the state and the post-war settlement—taken as synonymous—was a prerequisite to sounding modern and relevant. The suggestion that anything might have been better at any point between 1945 and 1979 was something that was not generally seen as a vote-winner, but since the EU referendum, both May and Johnson have sought to claim the past for the right (a shift which, in Johnson’s case, necessitated an opportunistic U-turn from the modernising image he presented as Mayor of London).

Comparing the elections fought by Corbyn, key policies associated with Labour in 2017—higher income tax rates for the wealthy, nationalised utilities and free university tuition—all existed within living memory: indeed, George Eaton suggested at the time that Labour’s “proposals owe more to the post-war Keynesian consensus than they do to the Communist Manifesto”, and later compared them with a putative ‘Corbynism 2.0’. Public ownership is not only associated with a post-war consensus that some voters may be nostalgic for; more importantly, its past existence makes it something that can immediately be envisaged—it doesn’t have to be imagined into being.

In contrast, certain new policies in (or associated with) the 2019 manifesto like a four-day working week, universal basic income, net-zero emissions, and free broadband—all written by the same politicians and staff—were less readily envisaged. This doesn’t mean Labour must re-orient itself to look backwards, or limit its horizon to what has previously existed, but reminds us that capturing the future requires more than just announcing new-sounding things, and that futurism doesn’t in itself guarantee greater electoral success than speaking to already-existing potential desires. Maybe Labour does need to have something to say about the post-war period if it is to wrestle back voters from the Conservatives’ embrace of imperial nostalgia without going down a reactionary Blue Labour cul-de-sac. Or maybe the lesson is simply that if you’re going to propose the most far-reaching structural reforms in a generation or more, they need to be framed in a way that makes them sound realistic and not utopian.

While in some respects the outlook now is gloomier than it was in 1983, there are chinks of sunlight as well, and not just in the youthful profile of Labour’s vote. Thatcher’s reforms successfully kickstarted capitalism in the aggregate by redistributing power from labour to capital and unleashing the finance sector. Subsequently, with headline growth and profits healthy, and wages rising for many, New Labour came to power able to provide better public services and tax credits to prop up earnings for those who weren’t benefiting.

In contrast, since 2008 it’s unclear that either Johnson or the post-Thatcher ‘moderates’ have any solutions to the economic problems implied by productivity growth of just 0.3% last decade. In general rising wages must come from either increasing productivity or increasing labour’s bargaining power: there is no evidence the Conservative Party has an economic solution to the first, beyond some short-term capital projects, or is willing to countenance a political solution to the second. Maybe some solution will somehow emerge to today’s long crisis of capitalism and living standards are about to start rising sustainably again, or maybe the culture war can be sustained for long enough to keep the Conservatives’ new coalition together for many years, but in the long wake of the financial crisis, neither is guaranteed. Labour’s failure to win the 2019 election means we have a government which, despite having won the political battle, does not have a solution to the biggest economic challenges of our time.

At the heart of The Future of the Left are back-to-back chapters by Kinnock and Benn: the one recently victorious in the leadership election, the other who would surely have stood against him had he not lost in Bristol East.

Almost every paragraph in Kinnock’s chapter, ‘Mobilising in Defence of Freedom’, contains the words “liberty” or “freedom”. Perhaps with one eye on the readers of the original New Socialist, or on Alliance voters, and drawing on Colin Leys’ exposé of the Thatcher state’s workings, he makes the case that the Conservatives’ supposed freedoms are nothing of the sort: “that individual liberty is our whole purpose and that democracy is our means”. Elsewhere, Stuart Hall charges him with having swallowed Hobsbawm without having understood the question of how to put together “a new historical bloc of forces—which is Hobsbawm’s real point”.

Benn’s contribution, ‘From Defeat to Victory’, instead centres ‘belief’ and ‘credibility’: “If hope is to replace fear, people have to be able to believe that there is an alternative. Unfortunately for us, the electorate did not believe in Labour’s alternative—and wondered whether we all believed in it either.” Time and time again today we hear that Labour’s policies last December were popular in themselves, but that voters didn’t believe we would or could implement them. Why would anyone vote for a party promising something which they won’t or can’t do?

In 1984, Massey, Segal and Wainwright were even more explicit: “The unpopularity of the left is not so much due to popular disagreement with left ideals (if they’ve ever heard of them), as to an absence of any apparent strategy for putting them into practice and therefore a feeling that they are pie in the sky.” If there is one lesson, maybe it ought to be this: a programme which is—or appears—ambitious from a contemporary standpoint can only succeed if we look like we truly believe in it and know how we are going to make it a reality.

Benn’s blaming of past Labour governments for voters’ lack of faith in the Party’s newly radical commitments may seem irrelevant for a Party now out of power for a decade, but cannot be dismissed in the context of Brexit and the long-term decline of Labour’s supposed core vote. A lack of faith in the leadership amongst the Parliamentary party (Benn points the finger at the Shadow Cabinet) is an undoubted hindrance—and one which can ultimately only be resolved by choosing a leader who is (or becomes) acceptable to existing MPs, or by selecting MPs who will not undermine the leader.

Where next for a Labour Party faced, then as now, with reports of declining class identification, a divided Labour Party, and even suggestions of a formal coalition with other parties?

Göran Therborn captures the spirit of many of his co-authors when he calls for a “recognition and an elaboration of the irreducible heterogeneity of several strategies for human emancipation—the socialist class struggle, the feminist struggle and others—and the links of interdependence between them, in terms of structural preconditions and fighting forces in existence.”

Arguably, the left’s inability or unwillingness to recognise and articulate that heterogeneity and interdependence was the outstanding failure of that era. The suggestions offered now, as they were in the 1980s, are that we should cut corners: either to ‘move on’ from a ‘reductive’ class-based economic analysis in favour of a new alternative alliance, or to double down on economic conditions as the sole unifier and, implicitly, to stop talking about ‘social’ struggles.

With talk of a ‘progressive alliance’ fashionable once again in some quarters, it’s worth revisiting some arguments the New Left made for and against formal arrangements with other forces, the SDP-Liberal Alliance in particular. Raymond Williams’s chapter ‘Socialists and Coalitionists’ considers areas of potential agreement between left and centre and examines the potential for both a ‘Big Coalition’, involving some or all of the Alliance, and a ‘Smaller Coalition’ constituted of a Labour Party which has set aside disagreements to unite around a minimalist centre-left agenda. Noting that, if policies end up being the same then there is little to be lost from forming either coalition, Williams nonetheless emphasised that none of the suggested areas of commonality are “in any distinctive sense socialist”. If socialists do not believe moderate Keynesianism of this type or similar is adequate for any sustained recovery or advance, coalition around a non-socialist programme makes no sense. Instead Williams calls for a thorough transformation of the Party’s policy-making processes (beyond motions into genuinely practical programmes) and the launch of a public process of reconsidering and changing assumptions, habits and attitudes:

Whether it’s the Big or the Smaller version, the advocates of either have in effect abandoned the struggle to transform belief and opinion. In a cold climate, they say, the many but now disparate remnants of decent and sensible opinion must huddle together, pooling their surviving resources against the Tory storm. I can see how easy it is to feel like that or to respond hopefully to a few brave words flung back against the wind. I also know that the kind of campaign for renewal which I have been describing has been proposed before, and has never fully happened. Are these words, too, no more than a cry against this kind of wind? It is for many of us to answer. If this new kind of politics is too hard for us, if there is too little time or if we already believe that these more radical tactics must fail, there are still answers—indeed now common answers. Ruling the new politics out, or merely paying lip services without the practical changes which need to go with it, leaves plenty of room for other kinds of political activity: we can sustain the Smaller Coalition without any real work on policies, or reach out for the Larger Coalition, adapting ahead of its formal arrangements by trimming or underplaying those innovative socialist policies which are known to be incompatible with it. But we can then draw a clear line, to our mutual advantage, between socialists and coalitionists. We can begin to see where we really are, and what we have to change.

It remains the case that coalition unity between the left and the centre-left, inside or outside the Labour Party, can only, by definition, be achieved on a programme of which none of the elements are distinctively socialist. Keir Starmer’s support for “common ownership” and Lisa Nandy’s “collective ownership” (not to mention the omission of public ownership from Clive Lewis’ manifesto altogether) suggest a potential willingness to leave key utilities in the ownership of the few not the many—like, for example, Welsh Water, a private not-for-profit company run by ‘members’ who are opaquely appointed and not accountable to the public, staff, or electorate. This political faultline will not go away by crossing our fingers or pleading for unity. If there was a hypothetical new Labour leader who wanted to move the Party, gently and subtly, away from the most successful and emblematic elements of the 2017 manifesto, they could do worse than exchange “public” for “collective” ownership, offer Shadow Cabinet jobs to people who are concerned about the environment as left cover, and cross their fingers that it doesn’t take three parliaments for a strategy of gradually edging away from the left to bear electoral fruit.

Others would now seemingly like to build a coalition based around a rotation onto the axes of the culture war, taking up Johnson’s invitation to a fight on his own terms by lining up with socially liberal centrists. On this basis the clearly correct observation that the working class is not just northern, white and Leave-voting becomes an adherence to anything that signals distance from that ‘old-fashioned left’: the divide ceases to be left-right and becomes open-closed, Remain-Leave, or radical-orthodox, with straightforwardly good positions on freedom of movement, trans rights, and decarbonisation (though to presume that actually existing British liberalism has genuine commitments to any of these may, in many cases, be naïve) put on the same level as tactical questions such as electoral reform and devolution, underlaid by a shared liberal suspicion of organised labour. It asks us, again, to give up distinctively socialist policies for supposed short-term gain. Massey, Segal and Wainwright’s “Great-Moving-Right-Male-Left-Show” describes today’s ex-Trotskyists and post-capitalists as neatly as it did Hobsbawm and the others for whom it was coined.

That does not constitute a plea for the left to shut up about ‘cultural’ issues, as the book-eaters would doubtless advise us. Fighting to defend and extend the rights fought for by millions in the past and present is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the left. Nor does rejecting both crude workerism and the implicit claim to have moved beyond left-moderate antagonism mean ruling out cooperation in many areas—there have always been, and always will be, areas of overlap and common interest with those who are not socialists—but even small coalitions must start, as Williams says, from an honest assessment of where we are, not from pretending old divides have been dissolved by newer ones.

During the years of Peter Mandelson’s “sealed tomb”, we on the Labour left may have hoped that, if only left-wing ideas were heard, they would automatically lead to electoral success. If that was wrong, it’s clear from 2017 that a shift to the left doesn’t automatically lead to electoral annihilation either. The problems that burst out in 2008, the consequences of an economic era that was still taking shape in 1983, have not been tidied neatly away. As others have pointed out, Thatcher was deposed three years after winning a larger majority than Johnson’s, and there is no sign of the centre being in an intellectual position to take advantage should anything similar occur.

As Corbyn likes to say, in a quote commonly attributed to Pablo Neruda: they can cut the flowers but they can’t stop spring from coming. We can be forgiven for mistaking snowdrops for daffodils, but we need to learn humbly from our mistakes and those of our predecessors if we are to see where we really are and what we have to change, and to tend effectively the stirring of socialist thought and activity in the Labour Party which now exists thanks to those who led, supported and sustained Corbynism while it lasted.


Rory Macqueen (@RNMacqueen)

Rory MacQueen is a Labour Party activist and was an economic advisor to John McDonnell between 2015 and 2020.