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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 176 Contents

Socialist Review, June 1994

Notes of the Month

Labour left

Don’t rock the boat


From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The most notable absentee in the leadership elections is Labour’s hard left. Less than a decade ago the left candidate would have been a force to be reckoned with. Until John Smith’s leadership contest in 1992, there had always been a main left contender, and usually the leader of the Labour Party had started political life as a left winger.

Not today. The Campaign Group of MPs has restricted itself to calling for the election to be delayed until party conference at the beginning of October. There is no hard left candidate.

The decline of Labour’s left as a real force, both in parliament and in the wider party, is not new. As Ian Aitken wrote in his New Statesman article on John Smith, such is the backlash against the left inside the party that ‘it is now harder to find someone willing to own up to being involved in it than to find someone who admits to having been a Nazi in Hitler’s Germany.’

Perhaps this explains the astonishing tribute to John Smith written by Ken Livingstone in Tribune. Livingstone claims that Smith ‘would have been our greatest prime minister since Clement Attlee’ and that, ‘contrary to the press label as a right winger, he actually would have presided over a radical, reforming government.’

There is absolutely no evidence for this statement. John Smith was a member of the right wing Labour government which attacked workers in the late 1970s. He did not split with Labour to form the SDP, like many with similar politics, but he was central to Solidarity, the right wing grouping inside Labour which was formed to smash the left in the early 1980s. He was always clearly on the right of the party.

Experience of office, according to Livingstone, would have led him to radical reform.

‘The scale of the economic crisis he would have inherited is so severe that his intelligence would have led him to act quickly and decisively to modernise the British economy and ancient institutions.’

Well, it might have done, but if so, he would have been the first Labour leader to have seriously attempted such a goal. Much more likely is that John Smith would have followed in the footsteps of other Labour leaders and accepted the need for workers to make sacrifices in order to save British capitalism.

A few years ago most Labour lefts would argue very differently: that the party had to embrace more left wing policies, that there was a clear difference between left and right inside the party. Today after years of defeat and witchhunts, the left is compromised. It used to argue that there were two sides to the struggle: what went on in parliament and what went on outside.

It is obvious today where Labour left’s priorities lie: in parliament and nowhere else. And if parliament is dominated by the right and centre, then the left will compromise to accommodate.

Many of the left felt that under John Smith’s leadership their political situation improved. There was no longer the atmosphere of witchhunts and demands for loyalty which characterised the Kinnock leadership.

But that is to misunderstand what has happened in the Labour Party in recent years. Kinnock met with real resistance from the left and responded by expelling his opponents. John Smith never needed to take so hard a line against the left. The left had moved so far onto his ground that it was no longer necessary.

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