A Party with Socialists in It – A History of the Labour Left
By Simon Hannah

Pluto Press, paperback, available at Printed Matter Bookshop and Bookbuster, at £12.99 – 10% discount with 1066 Cards/students


John McDonnell provides the forward asking the question – What is the Labour Party (LP) for? Is the LP simply to ameliorate our existing capitalist society, to tweak it by making slight reforms, or to transform it by ‘aiming at the radical replacement of the existing economic and social system’? McDonnell talks of the Party’s development from the lack-lustre leadership of Ramsay McDonald in the1930s after the Great Depression, to the Party’s monumental success after WWII with Clement Atlee and leads us up to the Blair years which were neither reformist nor transformative.

Hannah’s introduction begins with the current leader of the LP, Jeremy Corbyn, and the battles he has faced with the Labour right, and how the LP has faced division within its own party since its early formation. To understand the division within the LP one needs to go back to its inception.

During the 19th Century, trade unions and worker cooperatives were naturally forming as a defence for working people against the exploitative economic system of capitalism.   Members of the highly skilled trade unions and guilds sided more with the Liberal Party than with what the ILP was trying to establish & some indeed went on to become Liberal MPs. However, mass union organising was growing and challenging capitalists further, fighting for higher pay, improved working conditions and the 8 hour working day.

In 1893, Keir Hardie was elected as the first explicitly working class MP and championed an independent working class party which led to the Independent Labour Party (ILP). As members grew Hardie wanted to strengthen the working class by unifying the ILP with one of the biggest unions at the time, the TUC, but its leaders were hostile to a split in Parliament as they saw the Liberals as their best chance of winning reforms.

By the early 1900s, the unifying of the ILP, the (Marxist) Social Democratic Foundation and the Liberal-leaning Fabian Society, began to meet in Parliament as the Labour Party. The first test for the party was the demand for women’s suffrage with many radicals and members (notably the Pankhursts) forcing the issue by making it a national debate. Mass strikes erupted alongside women’s suffrage in the years leading up to WW1 and there was a growing distrust against both union leaders and MPs and later again during the General Strike of 1926.

Hannah then documents the ongoing divisions within the LP through the Great Depression, the Easter Uprising in Dublin, the call to arms in WW1 and the Russian Revolution, which did indeed divide opinions.  The 1918 Constitution really increased the size of the LP as former Liberal voters switched to the LP, trade unions became more affiliated and it became a membership organisation. The famous Clause IV was introduced which really gave birth to the rise of socialism in the Party and began setting sights on the nationalisation of industry to the benefit of the country post-WWII.

Post-WWII, Labour rose to Parliamentary success due to the unpopularity of  Churchill at the time and many advances in the ‘spirit of ‘45’ were made such as the creation of the NHS; the welfare state; national house building programme; full employment and the start of public ownership of certain aspects of industry under Clause IV. Open ideology-warfare began between Nye Bevan on the left and Hugh Gaitskell on the right and ran through to the ‘50s, leaving Bevan to resign as the US pressurised the LP to spend more money on the war machine and Gaitskell won his goal of removing dental and eye treatment from
the NHS.

The book continues through the ‘50s and ‘80s and then on into the ‘90s, in which Hannah points to the more recent right of the LP –  ‘New Labour’, described by Roy Hattersley as the ‘cuckoo in the nest’, as Blair and his followers adopted the neoliberal model. Big changes were afoot with the removal of Clause IV as Public-Private partnerships opened up with the Private Finance Initiatives leaving hospitals dangerously indebted to private firms, the RMT withdrew its funding due to the failure to bring railways back under public control, as did the Fire Brigade Union due to the increasing attacks on trade unions. And of course there was the Iraq War.

Hannah’s last chapter discusses the rise of Corbynism and he concludes with:

‘Any serious reading of history can lead to only one conclusion; the socialist left will have to break down the traditional institutions of government and power in order to make any headway at all’.

This is a welcome addition to understanding the history of the LP and one I would certainly recommend to make sense of the factionalism within the Party.

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