1990s >> 1990 >> no-1034-october-1990

Is the Left Finished?

A decade ago, after the utter failure of the last Labour government, its capitulation to the IMF and its attacks on the social services, and with the mass unemployment and high inflation years of the first Thatcher administration, the position of the Labour Left was probably as strong as it had ever been. Organisations such as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Rank and File Mobilising Committee—not to mention Militant—were able to steer the Labour Party leftwards, opening the way for the desertion of some of the rightwing with the formation of the SDP in 1981 and then, in 1983, for the presentation of Labour’s most leftwing election manifesto since 1945.

By 1990 the strength and significance of the Labour Left has changed dramatically. Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the man who said that he “would keep the party unilateralist”, has embraced multilateralism and taken most of the party with him. Nationalisation is seen as a relic from the party’s dinosaur days, with the Policy Review document tentatively suggesting that the state’s holding in British Telecom might possibly be increased from 49 per cent to 51 per cent. Tony Benn, the guru of the Left, now seems to be the forgotten man of British politics while his side-kick Dennis Skinner contents himself with the position of unofficial Court Jester to the Palace of Westminster. Gone are the heady days of those bewildering Conference resolutions calling for massive extensions of state ownership and a “fundamental shift in power and wealth towards working people and their families”.

It was only a matter of time before a party as wedded to reformism as Labour would decide that all the composite resolutions in the world would not be of any use unless they were in line with what both the capitalist class and the electorate at large think and expect. The modern Conservative Party is at pains to deny that it had anything to do with the economic difficulties and industrial strife of the pre-Thatcher period. Indeed, much of its success has depended on people associating the 1960s and 70s with the Labour Party, Ted Heath, state intervention and borrowing. That Labour never really implemented a full-blooded programme for state capitalism along the Benn lines is neither here nor there—it is the association which counts.

This, combined with the general shift away from direct state ownership in the economy and from the strained East-West relations of the pre-Gorbachev period, ensured that after its initial successes the Left became isolated and ineffectual. Nationalisation was increasingly out of step with the further internationalisation of capitalist ownership and investment, while unilateral nuclear disarmament was the last thing the other NATO bloc states were looking to Britain for.

So instead of the Labour Party changing society it has been the developments in society which have served to change the Labour Party. Past Labour governments are testimony to the fact that there is nothing really new in this except for one thing—it is the first time the Labour Party has shifted its stance while in opposition. The Left are, of course, aware of this. Former MP Reg Race told a conference in May of “Labour Party Socialists” in Sheffield that the Party’s new policy document:

    “is the most right-wing document ever published by the Labour Party in opposition. Instead of shedding its socialist policies in power, Labour has performed its policy U-turn before the election.”

The prospect for state capitalism and its supporters looks fairly grim. The tide of history would appear to have done the Left a disservice. However, the Left have never been slow to cash in on the failings of other reformers and there is no reason why they shouldn’t do so again. Now that Neil Kinnock and the Shadow Cabinet have openly fallen in love with the market, their election to office may well give the Left the fillip it needs. Labour’s inevitable failure to solve the major problems facing the working class would provide the Left with the chance to re-establish themselves as serious contenders within the realm of capitalist politics. After all, nothing breeds discontent like failure—especially repeated failure. Indeed, one delegate at the Sheffield conference is reported to have stated that:

    “They want to do nothing about the economy. We will not win the vote at the [Labour Party] Conference, but the failure of that policy after the election will provide us with the opportunity.” (Guardian, 21 May)

State intervention and capitalism

There is something else which may also serve to benefit the Left in the longer term. Even though nationalisation and other traditional forms of state intervention have been on the retreat in much of the developed world, there is no reason to assume that they will be of no use to the capitalist class for ever more.

Politicians such as Tony Benn have long argued that the financial scandals to which the City and private enterprise are prone would be remedied by a good dose of nationalisation and “workers’ control” and that selective nationalisation would introduce a degree of planning into an otherwise anarchic system. Even though the Left attacks Kinnock for saying that Labour’s task should be to make capitalism work better than it has under the Tories, they are in effect saying the same thing—only they have different ideas about how it can be done.

The problems of the environment are another crucial area in which the interventionism favoured by the Left may have something to offer capitalism. Even Prince Charles seems to have come to the conclusion that capitalism cannot go on as it has been doing for much longer, such is the conflict between the life-sustaining systems of the Earth and the profit motive.

Of course countries which have had state capitalism such as East Germany have long had very serious pollution, but it is difficult to see how something could be done within capitalism about environmental problems without a move towards state intervention and regulation of the operation of enterprises. The state will have to take responsibility for investment that the private sector is unwilling to provide, but which may be necessary for the interests of the capitalist class in the long run. The Green Party, which has taken on a number of the viewpoints and perspectives of the Left, pledged itself at the last General Election to “support socially useful products and services, not just commercially viable ones”.

The Labour Left and the Greens start out from the same premise that the free market and uncontrolled growth are the cause of the world environmental crisis and they both say that selective state intervention and a changed system of taxation are necessary as a response. Some of these ideas may look increasingly attractive to capitalist governments in the not too distant future as a way of eliminating some of the worst effects of pollution.

Capitalism is an anarchic and unplannable system which goes its own way ignoring the requirements of billions of people. It is not therefore surprising that many set out to bring the system to heel. The Greens may have been a product of the environmental crisis, but the Labour left spring from a different tradition, one which has concerned itself with the many ways in which capitalism has shown itself to be out of control—crises and depressions, unemployment amidst poverty and need, and so on. As these features of capitalism persist, as they will, so will political groupings which have ideas to get rid of them by “planning” capitalism.

The Thatcher victory in 1979 was partly a result of the failure of the Left to plan capitalism smoothly in the 1960s and 70s. Come the next slump, Thatcher, Kinnock and the other worshippers of the market may have nowhere to run. The Labour Left may find that state intervention is on the capitalist political agenda again.

Whether or not some form of state regulation of the market economy will get its chance again will depend on the attitude of the working class—and it is up to the working class to see that one form of failure isn’t replaced with a resurrected old one.

Dave Perrin

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