‘A Party with Socialists in It’: a review of a new history of the Labour Party

This article was first published in The Norwich Radical.

It was too beautiful to last. The fragile truce established between Labour’s dueling factions after the party’s unexpectedly strong 2017 general election performance disintegrated just in time for this year’s local election campaign.

Despite everything Labour still made gains, indicating that its simple anti-austerity message continues to have the capacity to cut through the interference generated by chronic internal feuding. But the result was hardly good enough to foster a new outbreak of peace.

They’ve been cruelly (re-)exposed over the last few months. The row over the Haringey Development Vehicle highlighted sharp divisions about the appropriate role of the private sector in providing public services, in this case social housing.

Jeremy Corbyn’s dovish caution regarding the placing of blame for the Salisbury nerve gas poisonings and the wisdom of air strikes against Syria was angrily condemned by the party’s foreign policy hawks. And fundamentally different understandings of the nature and extent of Western ‘colonialism’ between left and right go some way to accounting for the ongoing fallout over anti-semitism.

I should put my own cards on the table by saying that I was one of the many Labour members who voted – not without some hesitation – for Corbyn in 2015, in the hope that it would trigger the rigorous debate about the party’s future that should have taken place after its 2010 election drubbing.

I think it’s safe to say that those hopes for a ‘robust’ internal discussion have been fulfilled. But though highly charged the party’s ongoing debate has been cathartic, challenging both sides to think seriously about Labour’s purpose. The left’s new power comes with the responsibility of developing a credible programme for government. And the right has had to face the question of why New Labour lost the confidence of both the electorate and the party membership. It feels as if a window has been opened, letting in sunshine as well as wind and rain.

The much lauded 2017 manifesto was perhaps the most fruitful product so far of the tense but creative dialogue between the party’s left and right stimulated by Corbyn’s election. With its unashamed rehabilitation of the concept of an active state committed to investment, public ownership and the renewal of public services the programme clearly bore the left’s imprint. But its radicalism was tempered by restraint, most notably in the form of the fiscal rule that would limit a Labour government to borrowing for investment rather than day-to-day spending.

The manifesto caught the public’s imagination, helping bring Labour to the verge of the most improbable of victories. A timely new history of the party by Simon Hannah,A Party with Socialists in It, provides a further reminder that the party’s intellectual energy has always depended on channelling the dynamism generated by the tension between its rival factions.

It should be noted that Hannah’s essay, the latest in PlutoPress’ Left Book Club series, is itself partisan. A left wing trade union activist, Hannah makes his support for Corbyn’s leadership clear from the opening pages.

And from time to time the party’s centre-right is cast in an unduly harsh light. It would have been possible, for example, to dwell on the equivocations of the Wilson and Callaghan governments while setting them more clearly in the context of the fraught economic conditions in which they had to work. Or to have been more generous about the difficult choices the leadership faced in seeking to renew the party after the disastrous 1983 election, navigating a long rocky road that brought it to the threshold of power in 1992. Or even to recognise that, whatever one’s ideological objections, the New Labour project was a serious effort to redesign social democracy in a country profoundly reshaped by Thatcherism, fronted by a politician with rare strategic and communicative gifts.

Readers seeking a broader perspective should make sure to read other recent histories of the party. But though filtered through a distinctly red lens, Hannah’s contribution offers a well researched, accessible overview that sets today’s conflicts in their historical context.

The opening chapters dealing with Labour’s tangled origins are particularly valuable, making it clear, against partisans seeking to claim the party for the left or the right, that it was founded as a broad, and necessarily fragile, alliance of socialists, social democrats and liberals. As Tony Benn once put it in the phrase from which Hannah takes his book’s title, ‘the Labour party has never been a socialist party, although there have always been socialists in it’.

The party’s founding conference in 1900 brought together Britain’s trade union movement with rich blend of socialist societies that reflected every shade of leftist philosophy, the largest of which was the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a freewheeling association of radicals, utopian left-libertarians, Christian Socialists, and proto-environmentalists. Others included the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and the reformist Fabians. The conference blocked an attempt by the SDF to establish the new party on explicitly Marxist terms: it was to be a broad coalition, from the start.

The ideological faultlines on which Labour was founded have repeatedly threatened to break the party apart. The fissure between socialists intent on wholesale political and economic transformation and social democrats favouring incremental reform cracked open early in the party’s story, when Ramsay MacDonald’s fragile minority governments, concerned to demonstrate they could be trusted with power, resisted the demands of a militant workers movement radicalised by the possibility that Europe might follow the revolutionary trail blazed by the Soviet Union.

The celebrated postwar Attlee administrations crackled with their own factional tensions, Aneurin Bevan resigning over the introduction of prescription charges before going on to lead the party’s left against Hugh Gaitskell’s moderates through the 1950s. Rumbling dissatisfaction with the failure of the Wilson governments to implement the ambitious programme of economic modernisation promised in Labour’s 1964 manifesto erupted into the ferocious ideological conflicts of the 1970s and early 1980s, as the left sought to commit a resistant leadership to a radical economic programme advocating economic planning, public ownership of strategic industries and worker self-management.

The party’s internal warfare went underground during the New Labour years as the right succeeded in representing the 1983 meltdown as proof that an essentially conservative British electorate would never vote for radical reform, a ghost that for the left was finally laid during last year’s resurgence on the back of a robust anti-austerity programme.

Hannah summarises these and many other stand-offs between the party’s left and right with clarity and verve, making it clear that Labour’s perpetual conflict is a feature, not a bug, hardcoded into the DNA of a party accommodating a sprawling constituency encompassing trade unionists, technocratic liberals, working class social conservatives, Brexiteers, Remainers, European social democrats and neo-Marxist libertarians.

As with any broad church Labour fractious congregation will only survive if its factions try to understand and tolerate each other’s theologies. Hannah’s engaging history offers a useful pastoral resource for all those who want to help perpetuate that uneasy but rich alliance.

A Party with Socialists in It by Simon Hannah is published by PlutoPress.