Labour MPs in Confusion
The Labour Party has always attracted a wide range of politically bewildered do-gooders and reformists. These believe that in spite of their many differences, they can all band together and run capitalism more acceptably than the Tories. In the past some, like David Owen, have decided that their ambitions would be better served by getting out and abandoning the principles they once claimed to hold. Others like Tony Benn have remained despite their out-of-step ideas, to become eccentric and embarrassing curiosities in the eyes of their more ambitious colleagues.
In his leadership acceptance speech of October 1983, Neil Kinnock attempted to forge a new unity by referring to “socialism” in the vague and misleading way that the Labour Party has often had recourse to when convenient:
“Our function, our mission as socialists, is to see we gain the power to achieve that, and there is no other way but by Socialism—deliberate organisation of all the resources of humankind and talents. That is the definition of Socialism.”
Such loose catch-all phrases may win standing ovations at Labour Party Conferences, but would also receive lip-service from all kinds of other capitalist politicians too.
In contrast to this, the Socialist Party has always held to a clear and precise definition of our aim, and being a democratic movement without leaders, any Socialist Party member could be relied on to explain this clear definition of socialism: a worldwide system of society in which goods and services are produced solely to satisfy human needs, not profit; which will only be possible when all the productive resources are democratically controlled, rather than at present where they are owned and controlled by private individuals or by the state on the “people’s behalf”. It cannot therefore be a system of buying and selling or bartering. Money will then be obsolete, as will be the need for human beings to starve while food is destroyed or allowed to rot because they cannot pay for it. This definition, of common ownership, production for use, and free access to all wealth, is expanded on throughout the journals and pamphlets of the Socialist Party.
In an effort to find out what was lift of Kinnock’s so-called socialist unity after five years of his leadership, one of our members wrote to a number of Labour MPs late last year and asked for their definitions of socialism. The results were quite spectacular, confirming our suspicion of utter confusion, disagreement and bewilderment.
Both Kinnock and his right-hand man Hattersley simply sent copies of Democratic Socialist Aims and Values which at the time was the latest creation of the Labour Party’s waffle factory in Walworth Road. The nearest that the pamphlet came to defining socialism was as a system of state capitalism, heavily decorated with a generous dose of liberal rhetoric. “The state’, we were assured, “is an instrument for sustaining and enhancing the liberties of the whole community”. “Free trade unions” would be vital to democracy; but Kinnock has been rather shy about any pledge to repeal the anti-trade union legislation of the past ten years. They trot out the old clichés about “redistribution of wealth” (and this is one promise which the 1974-79 Labour government did keep—the richest ten per cent became richer!) but there is no talk of changing the basis on which wealth is produced, only a recommitment to the “mixed economy”, as “there are many areas of the economy where market allocation and competition between companies . . . is essential” and “democratic socialists believe in market allocation”. Next they’ll be telling us that defenders of capitalism “believe in common ownership”.
Tony Benn was one of several respondents who referred us to literature on the subject, in this instance a list of the many books and pamphlets he has written since 1957. He also sent the Aims and Objectives of the Campaign Group, which advocates “a steady expansion of common ownership . . . covering the commanding heights of the economy”. It is clear, however, that this refers to state capitalism again, as the leaflet elsewhere speaks not of ending the state, government and law which are all parts of the profit system and of class division, but of subjecting these institutions to “fundamental reform” only. Likewise, when interviewed in the Socialist Standard in 1980, Benn upheld the Clause Four blueprint for nationalisation.
Gwyneth Dunwoody also referred us to the old chestnut of Clause Four of the Labour Party Constitution, while Dale Campbell-Savours plumped for “a collectivist approach” with a bit of “democratic accountability” on the side. His comment that “I could have spent several hours pondering in the most subtle detail exactly what I do mean by Socialism, and it might be good for me personally to do so” could well be taken to heart by many of the other respondents. Peter Shore, on the other hand, went for “a society of equals . . . to end the exploitation of man by man”. He seems to have forgotten that saying that under Labour governments the exploitation of “man by man” is replaced by its opposite.
Stuart Bell sent several typed sheets, the gist of which can be summed up by his assertion that “the Labour Party believes in a mixed economy where profits are accepted but where profits are accepted but where a better use of them would be re-investment”. He also showed an unfortunate lack of prescience by stating (in November 1988) that “Mikhail Gorbachev and the leader of the Chinese people . . . are seeking to democratise their socialism, to make it accountable and therefore flexible and responsive to the needs of people rather than bureaucracies”. So, according to his defence of state capitalism referred to as “socialism”, is the wholesale slaughter of Chinese workers part of this new “flexible” response?
Michael Foot declined to provide a definition, instead recommending various books by Aneurin Bevan, John Strachey, himself and others. Several others also found themselves more inclined towards arrogant self-publicity than to define for us what they stand for. Ken Livingstone assured us that we would find his definition of socialism in an interview he had had with Tariq Ali. Eric Heffer complained to that to define socialism “would take a lot of time and effort” and recommended instead that we get his latest book. Likewise, Bryan Gould recommend his own book and, as a teasing taster gave us this morsel, that socialism is “a political system designed to break down the concentrations in society and to defuse power as widely as possible”. There was certainly a breakdown of concentration as far as these definitions were concerned.
Bearing in mind that many of these people have been elected to power on the basis of standing for something called “socialism”, their general reluctance to give a clear and practical definition of what they stand for shows a quite outstanding contempt for the people who elect them to such positions of power. Perhaps the best example of this arrogance came from Robin Cook, whose assistant wrote that “Robin Cook has asked me to thank you for writing to him, unfortunately he does not feel that he is in a position to respond to your request.” You could probably get a more helpful response from the queen.
Jeremy Corbyn wrote of an absence of exploitation, respect for the natural environment, and production for need and not profit. In this last phrase, he came dangerously close to a genuine definition of socialism. But the capitalist class need not fear; production for need cannot be introduced on the basis of minority control of the means of production, whether through private enterprise or through the state control which Corbyn stands for. Tam Dalyell limply offered “a system based on the advantage of the community rather than the individual”. Finally, Denis Healey (don’t forget the MBE) suggested “collective control of society” with the rider that “I hope my views will be clear to you in the enclosed pamphlet”. In what might be regarded as a symbolic gesture, however, there was no pamphlet enclosed.
Then, for some light relief, some Tory MPs were also asked the same question. Teresa Gorman and John Carlisle both felt too bound by parliamentary protocol to be able to answer correspondence from a constituent of another MP. Dame Jill Knight quoted tediously from the Universal English Dictionary about collective ownership of capital. Henry Bellingham wrote passionately about “restrictions of an individuals freedom”. Leon Brittan would not offer a definition as he would prefer to leave that to those who claim to be socialists. (He seems unaware that he would have as much claim to call himself a socialist as some of the other respondents!) Finally, our member was warmly reassured by Graham Bright that “as a Conservative MP my aim is to preserve the liberties of my country and ensure its peace and prosperity”.
The conclusion to this enquiry, then, must be that the Labour Party remains quite bankrupt politically. Even when invited to define socialism, the rhetoric of confusion continues to churn out. Even in their most visionary moments, these people continue to fluctuate narrowly between the limited horizons of private and state forms of capitalism. They are unable to define socialism clearly or in practical terms because they are caught up entirely in the idea of trying to run capitalism. For a clear explanation of the socialist alternative then, workers must turn to the uncompromising, principled aim of the Socialist Party and our companion parties in the World Socialist Movement.