A book I read a long time ago suddenly seems more interesting than it has for many years. Back in 1985 I was a Labour Party activist. I had other things on my mind at the time and it wasn”t a huge part of my life in the way that it was for some of the other activists I met. But I went to meetings. I was briefly a secretary of a ward branch (sounds a lot more important than it actually was). I used to go out leafletting and canvassing. And this being the eighties, I was also involved in internal party debates.To be honest at the level I was, these were fairly polite affairs. After meetings we”d go to the pub and argue about things. There was a clear demarcation between those on the left and those on the right based around the kinds of policies they approved of. That was pretty much it. I didn”t get to meet any national figures or get involved with any plots or anything like that. But I did mea=et members of the Militant Tendency, who were getting a lot of coverage in the media. The Tendency bit was added by the press. They called themselves simply Militant. People on the right of the party called them Militant. People on the left affected not to really know anything about them.
They were actually pretty unthreatening in real life. They were not much like the stereotype in the media. They certainly claimed to be hard working fanatics, or good comrades as they put it. But I never saw them doing that much work. They did a bit, but they weren”t the core people who did all the things that kept the party going. But neither was I, so I didn”t really hold that against them.
So I was intrigued to read Militant, by Michael Crick. He is now famous for running down the street after people who don”t want to talk to him and getting hit by irate politicians. But I think this book was the first thing he ever did that got him noticed. It turned out to be well written and very interesting to someone like me who was actually in the Labour Party but who had somehow managed to learn almost nothing about the party”s history and culture and even policies before signing up. I had been a bit baffled by what all the fuss about Militant had been. But it turned out that there was a problem. They were indeed a party within a party. This all made perfect sense, and explained why they behaved the way that they did. I had wondered how they seemed to be so politically committed whilst not actually turning up all that often. They had their own meetings and organisation to absorb their time.
Militant were a small highly organised Trotskyist group who were using the Labour Party to further their own ends. This made the action that needed to be taken very clear and obvious. It didn”t really matter what their views were. If they weren”t true supporters of the aims of the Labour Party then they needed to be thrown out. The fact that they were far left entryists was not the issue. Had they been stamp collectors it would have been the same problem. Interestingly I discovered that once I expressed this opinion I was now deemed a member of the right of the Labour Party. I was fairly happy with this spot philosophically and have pretty much remained there ever since even though I was soon to drift out of active politics and no longer even vote Labour automatically – though I usually do. I don”t know what Michael Crick”s political views are but his book was instrumental in forming mine. But this is a review, so I had better talk about the book.
Militant tells the story of the Labour Party in the early eighties. At this stage in its history the party was still recognisably the party created by the working class via the trade unions. It still had a constitution that looked like it was cobbled together between lots of different component parts. Because it was. The National Executive Committee ran the party”s organisation and its members were drawn from all parts of the Labour ecosystem – trade unions, local parties, the Co-op. Labour was very much a world apart where they did things differently. It was full of things like the Organisational Sub Committee. This was referred to often enough to get shortened to the OrgSub. The party conference was its sovereign body.
There were all sorts of ways that the different parts of the movement were represented and involved in the party. So if you wanted to get to be a conference delegate – which seemed to be something that a lot of the people I met wanted to do – there were quite a few ways you could get there.
But while it still had the structure it no longer had all the people that used to be behind all the organisations. The delegates from local parties rubbed shoulders with trade unionists at the party conference, but they were now pretty much the same kinds of people. Like minded people are good at finding things to disagree about, so the annual conference was often a bit of a bun fight.
So it was all very interesting and there were numerous opportunities for acquiring positions and job titles and frankly feuding. Watching elections to the National Executive was a big deal. People who criticise the left for lack of commitment to democracy have never witnessed just how fascinated they are by the voting process. It was the political activists heaven. It didn”t really have much to do with the everyday lives of working people any more but it was great fun for the people involved.
It was also great fun for Michael Crick to document in great detail in Militant. He was even more of a political anorak in those days than he is now. He portrays the minutia of the ”left” and the ”right” would vie with each other to win control of a party machine that no longer really ran anything very much. It certainly didn”t help Labour with winning elections. In fact they lost nearly all of them in those days. Although the right managed to keep control of the party and the Militants were thrown out. the blame for the poor performance at the ballot boxes was picked up by the left. In fact it became a point universally accepted to be true that the left repelled voters. I certainly believed it, and many left wingers themselves came to believe it too.
The whole edifice of the party was shaken up under Kinnock who reformed quite a lot of the constitution and by the time Tony Blair was leader the battles between left and right were largely over. Most of the battlegrounds were taken away leaving no platform for the left to promote their cause. The left were all dressed up but with nowhere to infiltrate. Parliamentary candidates, particularly at by elections, were drawn from lists preselected at party head quarters leaving local parties without much influence on the choice of who represented the party in parliament. The left wing activists, indeed all activists, could still plod the streets – which they seem to have stoically continued to do – but would not be allowed anywhere near any actual power. That was reserved for Oxbridge types like the Eds Balls and Miliband. Who could go straight into the Commons without having to engage with the party machine much at all. I dare say the activists were not too dissatisfied. They hadn”t had any power anyway back in the days of the OrgSub either given that Labour never won any elections. Winning was probably enough to keep them going.
This book came to my mind recently when Jeremy Corbyn took over as the Labour leader. All the press were instantly going back to the eighties to find analogies to talk about the upcoming civil war that was soon to engulf the Labour Party.
But I am afraid I just don”t think that there is any comparison. The party”s problems were much worse back then. For a start there were actual Trotskyists trying to infiltrate the party. Militant were the biggest and the most successful, but there were other groups joining in on the fun as well. Quite distinct from them were the traditional Labour left, who were enthused by the leadership ambitions of Tony Benn. Benn was a complicated character whose ability to give a convincing speech was astounding. I have a feeling that it was his personal charisma that persuaded many activists to back nuclear disarmament and opposition to the European Union. But his equal ability to alienate his colleagues was to prove to be the undoing of his career and made a divided party look even more divided.
And on top of that you had people like me. Although I was a fairly mild mannered person, I had joined up in a state of anger at what the Tories were doing. To be entirely honest I wasn”t really very sure exactly what the Labour Party stood for, only that it was the alternative to the people who at the time I really hated. Negativity is rarely beneficial to anyone. It was all too easy for people who were angry to be portrayed in a bad light. And there were quite a lot of angry people in the Labour Party in the eighties. A lot of them identified with the left not out of ideological compatibility but simply because they were the people that the right wing press attacked so were presumably alright. Most amazingly, there were even some people who actually adopted the positions attributed to the left by the right wing media.
All in all it was a rough time to be a party leader and it was lucky that a bruiser like Neil Kinnock came along to knock some sense into the membership and kick out the entryists who should never have been in it in the first place.
The Labour Party of today has plenty of problems – the biggest one being that not enough people want to vote for it. But despite what the press seems to think, it isn”t anywhere near as divided as it used to be, and the fault lines are in completely different places. The world has changed beyond recognition. The issue of nuclear weapons was a hot button topic back in the days when the Soviet Union had missiles aimed at the UK. Whatever your opinion was, whether or not we kept our nuclear weapons was an important issue. It is still quite important today, but it is no longer something that seems crucial. The party”s position on the EU, i.e, coming out of it, seemed really eccentric in 1983 only 8 years after the voters had voted to stay in.
As to the issue that concerns most voters most of the time, the economy, there was a sharp divide between the right who basically wanted to keep the mixed economy that the first Labour government after the war had created and the left who wanted to radically move in the direction of a more planned economy. But given how far to the right the centre of gravity of British politics has moved since the eighties even the mildest of socialists, such as myself, find ourselves way to the left of centre.
I have warmed to Corbyn since he became leader. I still think it is a bit of a shame that someone who was a partisan in the party”s battles should end up as party leader. There are people around who will have understandable misgivings about getting behind somebody who was so closely associated with the Benn faction. But at least Corbyn”s personality isn”t as divisive as Benn”s was. And his hard work tramping up and down the country speaking seems to be paying dividends in building up the party”s membership. It turns out that having a left wing leader has very little impact on the Labour Party”s electoral appeal after all. Labour seem to be about as popular now as they were under Miliband. Neither the left and the right of the party seem to have any idea how to improve the situation. If there is a solution, it is likely to be something that nobody has thought of yet. Maybe now is the time when internal debate would actually be a good thing.
I don”t think I”ll be renewing my long lapsed party card, but I still wish them all well. And one thing I am sure of, this Momentum Group is nothing whatever like Militant used to be.