A Party with Socialists in it – a history of the Labour Left

Simon Hannah A Party with Socialists in it – a history of the Labour Left, Pluto, 2018, £12.99, 9780745337470

Reviewed by Dave Sherry.

Popular among younger voters and older Labour stalwarts alike, Jeremy Corbyn has proved hugely controversial and threatening to both the British establishment and Labour’s Blairite faction. Together they are ganging up on Corbyn, this time with crudely contrived accusations of anti-Semitism. No other Labour leader has been so denigrated and conspired against in such a short space of time as Corbyn. His rise makes relevant the history of the Labour Left from which he comes. But that history is not widely known.

With the tensions between Labour’s left and right intensifying, Simon Hannah, a union activist and Labour member, has written a timely book with a good, honest summary of the ups and downs of the Labour left, from the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 right through to the present. He states: ‘The arguments raised and the political divisions that emerged in 1900 have continued to reverberate down the years’ as he describes the three sources that formed Labour as a parliamentary party– socialists mainly from the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a union bureaucracy desperate for representation at Westminster and Liberals grouped around the Fabians, led by Sydney and Beatrice Webb.

Keir Hardie’s ILP was prepared to compromise socialist ideals for electoral gain and the support of union leaders. So Hannah freely admits: ‘Labour has never been a socialist party, even if- in the words of Tony Benn – it has always had socialists in it’ – hence the title.

It lays bare the divisions that have played out between right and left ever since, but more importantly Hannah shows that while the left could win important victories it was never able to consolidate or sustain them in the face of right-wing attacks and the power of the union block vote.

Ahead of a possible Corbyn government, Hannah’s cautionary tale shows how British capitalism has both accommodated Labour governments and undermined them when it felt threatened by even the most moderate measures.

For Hannah the failure of the Labour left historically has been its inability or reluctance to focus and concentrate its activities outside Westminster, combined with an over -reliance on its parliamentary leaders to deliver, as happened with both Nye Bevan and Tony Benn.

With a foreword by Deputy Leader John McDonnell, the book’s author welcomes Corbyn’s leadership and celebrates Labour’s last conference – the biggest in the party’s history. That’s why the warning in the book’s conclusion should be taken to heart: ‘Any serious reading of history can lead only to 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 means, ‘doing something the left has always talked about but never done-building a mass, extra- parliamentary movement’.

Hannah is right: a Corbyn government will face the hostility of the bosses and the forces at their disposal. If it is serious about fundamental change, it will provoke the fury of an undemocratic, unaccountable state.

On the eve of the WW1, the Tories allied with the Unionist bosses of Ulster and the British Army High Command to threaten the elected Liberal government of the day with a civil war if it tried to implement its manifesto promise of Home Rule for Ireland.

In the run-up to the General Strike of 1926, Trotsky wrote: ‘The present British parliament forms a monstrous distortion of the principles of bourgeois democracy. Without revolutionary force one can hardly obtain in Britain even an honest division of parliamentary constituencies or the abolition of the monarchy or the House of Lords’.

Little has changed since. When Corbyn was elected leader, a senior serving army general told the Sunday Times that if he became prime minister: ‘There would be mass resignations at all levels and the very real prospect of a mutiny. You would see senior generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over vital policy decisions such as Trident, pulling out of NATO and any plans to emasculate or shrink the armed forces. … The army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means, fair or foul, to prevent that … The intelligence services will refuse to let Corbyn see information on live operations because of his sympathy towards some terrorists’.

So Hannah’s appeal for the Labour left to focus on the building of a mass movement is urgent and ought to be pursued. The problem, however, is that even according to his version of Labour history there is no evidence to suggest that it will.

Sadly as things stand at present, Corbyn’s retreats before the right seem to confirm this. That can only change if Corbyn himself goes on the offensive – and not just on anti-Semitism and Palestinian rights, crucial as they are.

In Scotland, Corbyn is campaigning to win back Labour seats from the SNP, something that he believes will be critical in ending Tory rule at the next general election. But so long as Labour opposes a second referendum it repels potential voters, no matter how much to the left its policies may be compared to the SNP. Many see independence as the route to less inequality, anti- austerity and a less racist society. They may like Corbyn’s policies but have difficulty in seeing beyond his opposition to independence and his backing for Trident renewal. To gain momentum here, he needs to break with the Blairites on these questions too.

Dave Sherry is a longstanding member of the Socialist Workers’ Party and serves on the Scottish Left Review editorial committee.