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Review: Searching for Socialism: The project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn

Matt Byrne

The recent passing of renowned Canadian Marxist academic Leo Panitch has presented us with an opportunity to examine the possibilities for socialists in engaging in parliamentary politics and to appraise the successes, failures and opportunities that arose out of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour party.

Throughout the years the Australian Labor Left has used the examples set by left wing figures in UK Labour, such as Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, to champion the democratisation of our party as well as to advocate for a more comprehensively left wing agenda.

One of Leo Panitch’s final works Searching for Socialism, co-authored with Emeritus Professor Colin Leys, seeks to contextualise the Corbyn years by providing us with a detailed account of the history of the Labour ‘New Left’ and important analysis of the challenges face by Corbyn’s team when they surprised everyone by winning the party’s leadership in 2015.

The book is in fact a sort of update-come-sequel to their 1997 work The End of Parliamentary Socialism (Verso). In this new edition, the contents of The End of Parliamentary Socialism are condensed into the first six chapters with the remaining six dedicated to telling the story of the two decades since the height of the Blair years to the end of Corbyn’s leadership.

What is the Labour ‘New Left’?

Panitch and Leys describe how the Labour ‘New Left’ grew out of the radicalisation of young people that was occurring across the western world during the 1960s. These young people were rebelling against a post-war system and style of government that was seen as heavy handed and hierarchical and which had become disconnected from the aspirations of this new generation.

Echoing the socialism espoused by the likes of GDH Cole in an earlier era, the clarion call of these new radicals was for more participation and for the expansion of democracy into all facets of society. Along with this call came new liberation movements led by women, gays and lesbians, people of colour, indigenous peoples and environmentalists.

Concurrent with the flourishing of these movements the authors point out that a ‘New Right’, fuelled by similar feelings of disconnection between the people and the state, was also beginning to take hold in the Conservative party. The battle over which new vision for society would come out on top in their respective parties, would ultimately determine the UK’s political and economic future for the next forty years.

By the 1970s many activists across Europe had become frustrated by the limits and defeats of social movement activism and were attracted to trying to achieve their aims via parliamentary methods and so joined their respective socialist and labour parties to advance their agendas.

What distinguished the Labour ‘New Left’ from both their continental cousins and the older generation of socialists in the Labour party, was their determination to “create a new popular base for democratic socialism” by “linking its version of [a socialist] agenda with an attempt to democratise the party”.

For this new generation of socialists, democratising the party meant more than giving members a say on who their candidate for parliament should be – although the battle for this basic right has been an interminable one in both the UK and Australian parties – it meant “giving people a sense of their own power and encouraging them to use it.”

This was a significant departure from the entrenched trade union and parliamentary factions who were imbued in the old culture and practice of opaque and centralised decision making which had become symbolised in the party by the union bloc vote and in government by the parliamentary wing’s Burkean deference to the institution of parliament.

This clash of world-views would define many of the battles within the Labour party between the 1970s and 1980s – highlights of which included Tony Benn’s deputy leadership campaign in 1981 and the formation of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) which had early success in opening up candidate pre-selections and election of the parliamentary leader to members and affiliates. These events are well illustrated by the authors and provide useful context to gain a deeper understanding of the moments that shaped the major players of the Corbyn project.

Unfortunately for the ‘New Left’ these successes were met with significant resistance and long term defeat at the hands of the combined forces of the old union and parliamentary power blocs – including the ‘soft-left’ Tribune group. It was this same coalition of forces that supported Tony Blair’s rise to the leadership, ushering in the New Labour government and a long stint in the wilderness for the ‘New Left’.

The New Labour years were indeed the darkest for the ‘New Left’. Setup as straw-men to justify a massive centralisation of power and decision-making into the hands of the parliamentary leadership, the ‘New Left’ were significantly reduced in number in the parliament and their opportunities for activism in the party was reduced by the throttling of the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). Having been marginalised in the party, the parliamentary members of group, led by Tony Benn, turned their efforts towards supporting trade union and social movement activism outside of it including the Stop the War Coalition which campaigned against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

This long period of extra-parliamentary work, while bearing few rewards during the New Labour years, would form the basis for the groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s successful leadership bid in 2015.

The Role of Trade Unions

Running as a thread throughout the book, and underpinning the major determining moments of success and failure for the ‘New Left’, is the role played by trade unions in determining the direction of the party. Panitch and Leys highlight three key moments in the history of the ‘New Left’ where the decisions of trade union leaders greatly influenced the group’s successes and failures.

Partially influenced by the radicalisation of the 1960s, a leftward shift in the trade unions had become noticeable. The unions had become fed up with the Wilson government’s lack of results, and this period saw a freeing-up of the movement’s historically heavy hand on dissent within the party against the leadership which the ‘New Left’ took full advantage of by successfully changing the rules concerning pre-selections and pursuing more radical economic policies.

After the election of the Conservatives in 1979, the Labour party under the ‘soft-left’ leadership of Michael Foot (1980-1983) and Neil Kinnock (1983-1992) faced the hopeless task of trying to defeat an ascendant Margaret Thatcher while dealing with internal attempts to move the party right-wards, culminating in the 1981 split of the ‘gang-of-four’ who formed the highly damaging Social Democratic Party. This unhappy period ultimately saw the trade unions acquiesce to the parliamentary wing’s shift to the right by first supporting John Smith for the leadership and then, upon his death, supporting Tony Blair. This decision, informed by the desire for Labour to win government after eighteen years of Conservative rule, meant that the heavy hand on dissent was once more firmly in place on behalf of New Labour.

While success came for Labour in the form of three election victories between 1997 and 2010, the New Labour government oversaw continued decline in trade union membership and refused to overturn Thatcher’s comprehensive anti-union laws. The end of New Labour coincided with a series of trade union mergers and the emergence of a new generation of union leaders whose position regarding Labour was now being shaped by the bitter experience of the Global Financial Crisis. Sensing a shift in the membership of both their unions and the Labour Party, these new leaders decided to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid, and in so doing, provided new energy and an influx of resources and infrastructure to the now rejuvenated ‘New Left’.

The decisions made by trade union leaders throughout Labour’s history has shaped the form and function of the party as much as decisions made by the parliamentary party. Sometimes the decisions made can seem quite perplexing and counter-productive, such as their disciplined and largely uncritical support for New Labour. To understand this, according to the authors, we have to understand that the affiliated unions “have never seen themselves as rivals for political leadership of the labour movement [against the parliamentary party]”.

This history of deference to the parliamentary leadership helps to explain why the unions have had an uneasy relationship with the ‘New Left’, even though this group was determined to reverse the relationship and make the parliamentary wing deferential to the union movement and the party membership. The short term prospect of achieving policy gains in government often overrode any desire to fundamentally reshape the power dynamics in the party.

Panitch and Leys convincingly argue that only a strong coalition between the members and the unions can keep the parliamentary wing accountable and responsive to the needs of the movement. If socialists want to successfully influence the direction of the party, they have to build sustainable, supportive relationships in the trade union movement. Likewise they argue, the union movement must also learn to trust and build relationships with the party’s membership by building alliances in the branches and the community.

Deference to parliament and the freedom for MPs to defy the party’s other constituent wings are two of the key similarities between UK Labour and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). While there are key differences in the nature of the parliaments in the UK and Australia and the Australian union movement’s proprietorship over the ALP, the Australian union movement is often sidelined by the parliamentary wing when it comes to policy and decisions of government.

Vere Gordon Childe’s unmatched history of the internal workings of the ALP, How Labour Governs (1923) clearly illustrates how the mechanisms implemented by the unions in Australia to try to control the parliamentary wing – the binding pledge and the supremacy of Conference – were turned against the unions and the membership placing the party in a vice gripped firmly by the parliamentary wing. Studying Childe’s work alongside Panitch and Leys’ suggests that deeper structural and cultural reforms are needed if the controlling power of the parliamentary party is ever going to be overcome.

Panitch and Leys have also recognised the contribution of key member-activists who organised for the ‘New Left’, such as long-time Secretary of the CLPD Vladimir Derer and long-term Bennite and co-founder of Momentum Jon Lansman. What is lacking however, is an account of how rank and file activists involved in the ‘New Left’ organised across communities in the UK and in the CLPs. For instance, it would be interesting to know why the ‘New Left’ lacked any formal infrastructure nor ran any campaigns aimed at recruiting supporters to the party until Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign in 2015. For a group so tied to social movements and community organisations, it seems odd that they were not able to find an effective way to build their support base in the party through recruitment.

The Corbyn Period

While there are more comprehensive accounts of the various aspects of the Corbyn era – such as Alex Nunns’ The Candidate (2016) – the account provided in Searching for Socialism allows us to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘New Left’ whilst gaining an understanding of how the oligarchic tendencies of the party responded to a serious challenge to their control.

The change to electing the parliamentary leader via a one-member-one-vote model in 2014 opened the door for the ‘New Left’ to competitively campaign in the party against the dominant factions. Informed by a culture of participation and seasoned by years of extra-parliamentary activism, the ‘New Left’ were finally able to successfully tap into a broad movement of support to significantly grow the membership of the party and elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Tying movement activism to parliamentary politics is a great strength of the ‘New Left’ and it is a conceptualisation of the party that is largely non-existent in the ALP – this conceptualisation, however, runs strongly in the Australian Greens. To understand why this might be the case, see Shaun Crowe’s Whitlam’s Children (2018).

Corbyn’s victory saw an immediate and overwhelmingly negative response from the vast majority of the parliamentary party who began plotting his downfall from the moment of his election. After seeing off an attempted coup in 2016, Corbyn had to contend with a snap election in 2017 called by then Prime Minister Theresa May attempting to capitalise on Labour’s divisions. To everyone’s surprise, Labour came within less than three thousand votes of defeating the Conservatives. What enabled Corbyn’s near victory was the mobilisation of the members and supporters through Momentum, which the ‘New Left’ had built up over the preceding years and by framing the campaign as a nothing-to-lose insurgency.

However a near victory was not a victory, and the forces organising against Corbyn redoubled their efforts. With the government now in a precarious minority and the parliament bogged down with the Brexit crisis, the energy garnered from the 2017 election campaign dissipated and Corbyn’s focus was forced away from building the movement towards the machinations of the parliament. It is here that Panitch and Leys provide us with the most insightful critique of the ‘New Left’.

Transitioning from a position of significant weakness to leading the party in the space of a year meant that the ‘New Left’ lacked a strategy for governing the party and driving their project forward. The book quotes many activists close to the Corbyn project who point out that the group lacked a plan to educate the now more than half-million strong party membership on how to implement the leadership’s agenda and for dealing with hostile factions by implementing much-needed party reforms like mandatory reselections and rooting out the old Blairite bureaucracy. This lack of planning, whilst understandable in context, allowed Corbyn to get pinned down internally and be unable to respond effectively to the new Brexit-fuelled Tory insurgency of Boris Johnson.

What stands out as distinct about the ‘New Left’ is the clarity of their vision to marry parliamentary party and social movement activism. Perhaps the biggest weakness of this project in hindsight, is that it lacked a clear strategy for harnessing the power they had accrued in winning the leadership and driving it through the party.

After the defeats of both Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the US, many socialists involved in parliamentary politics are trying to plot a course that builds upon the achievements made in the last five years whilst trying to figure out how to overcome the entrenched power of unaccountable elites in their respective parties.

Searching for Socialism provides indispensable insights into how a more democratic and participatory mode of socialist politics could be achieved in social democratic and labour parties as well as standing as a testament to Leo Panitch’s incisive intellect and extensive knowledge of socialist politics.

Matt Byrne was Secretary of ACT Labor from 2014 to 2019.


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