Fear and Loathing in the Labour Movement

September 23, 2016 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The gravity of feeling was embedded in his face and voice as he spoke of his fears for the future of the party he once led. Gone were the arrogant finger-jabbing, the plethora of intemperate outbursts and the brazen insult to the current leader’s face. Neil Kinnock looked like a man in a state of grief. He saw the death of the thing he loved.

There may be heard the echo of Hugh Gaitskell’s defiant speech against his own party’s resolution for nuclear disarmament. He was determined, he said, to ‘fight, fight again to save the party we love.’ He thought he was engaged in a battle for the soul of Labour against ‘pacifists and fellow-travellers.’ In other words, he thought he was struggling against the KGB when he was actually quarrelling with eminent writers and thinkers, especially Bertrand Russell, and any number of world-class scientists who were providing cogent, informed and persuasively articulate arguments which Gaitskell did not understand.

Whether the misunderstanding was a matter of intellect or emotion, or an interplay of both, it may have led to Gaitskell’s catastrophic defeat in 1959 when Macmillan won a landslide, despite the Suez debacle a couple of years or so before. The public preferred an elderly, genial patrician to a floundering fearmonger picking a fight with his own party on a life and death question that transcended factional interests.

Politics, however, is much concerned with factional interests. I was young when I first heard Neil Kinnock speak. It was at a Tribune rally. The great Jimmy Reid spoke from the heart. Tony Benn artfully demonstrated how to be critical without being disloyal to the government in which he served. Kinnock, the firebrand, was contemptuous of Prime Minister Callaghan. There was spirit but not much substance in a crowd-pleasing speech.

Militant were in force outside with placards. As my friends and I got into their impressive car the derision was quite nasty.

For two pins the Militants would have smashed that car. We had applauded at the rally, but our voices and manner condemned us outside. Malcontents who despise society are not open to life’s many variations. There is but one theme and it is monotonous.

And so Kinnock’s challenge to Militant was a brave, bold and necessary move. The Labour Movement is a coalition of tendencies that includes Marxism but not narrow and extreme dogmas. It is a politics of dialogue that seeks to reconcile differences and cohere action towards a common goal. The problem was that Kinnock’s approach was as confrontational as the Militants he opposed. His instincts were centralising and authoritarian.

This worked well in clearing out entryists. When that was done there might have been a return to Labour traditions. What actually happened was an imposed ‘modernisation’ that distanced itself both from social idealism and organised labour in practice. Nationalist aspirations that had been favoured in the Wilson years were summarily rejected. A kind of managerial reformism, hierarchical and insistent, was the style. It was rejected in 1987 and again in 1992. Kinnock was too moderate for the left and too radical for the right. It was not easy for the electorate to understand or respect him, especially as he was no match for Thatcher’s caustic certainty in parliament. In the end he was no match even for the less assertive Major.

It was Blair’s confident and seemingly open style that enabled Labour to win in 1997. He looked radical and eager for change without being confrontational or doctrinaire. Blair squared the circle by reassuring the middle classes while appealing to Labour’s radical heart. If it was an illusion it worked well for a time. Had there been substance behind the style, the social transformation might have reconciled the tensions of society in ways technocrats cannot imagine as either possible or even desirable.

In the end we had a Labour government in name but not in nature. Looking back it is hard to believe what was not only possible but generally accepted in the Wilson years. Those were the years when the ideal of communal public service was advancing in health, education, culture and welfare as well as industry. The benevolent state had the leading role in society. Advocate such a polity now at your peril, but at one time it was accepted by many who were regarded as mainstream and moderate.

It will be said that the challenges of this century require appropriate policies.

Nostalgia is no guide to the future. Equally it may be said that collectivisation needs the support of worker participation to be truly Socialist. State control does not guarantee democracy. But neither does the moral collapse into laissez-faire economics of a kind that was one the province of deluded reactionaries not serious politicians in a credible, modern state.

This recognition has fuelled the urge for root change in Labour thinking. New forms of engagement are being sought, and they should not be ignored or treated with contempt and fear. The pendulum has swung leftward. That ought to occasion a time of reflection for all sections of Labour. There are new conversations available to those who genuinely wish to see a change of direction in society, rather than simply a change of management style. The wish has to be sincere and generous rather than the embittered grudge of a bad loser.


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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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