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Labour and the Left in the 1980s


Edited by Jonathan Davis and Rohan McWilliam


Manchester: University Press, 2018

Hardcover. xvi+215 p. ISBN 978-1526106438. Ł75


 Reviewed by Trevor Harris

Université Bordeaux-Montaigne





Peter Tatchell’s enthusiastic preface to this well-documented and enjoyable volume leads into a measured, wide-ranging introduction by the editors: essentially a potted history of Labour and an honest assessment of the limitations which kept it out of power during the long 1980s (from the defeat of Callaghan in 1979 to the defeat of Kinnock in 1992). Davis and McWilliam affirm from the outset that it “was still possible, in 1980, for some to believe that a socialist future beckoned” [1]: an idea that was in ruins by the end of the decade.

The editors and contributors to the book, although they do attempt to extract a bold historical victory from the jaws of a self-evident political defeat, cannot, however, be accused of a rose-tinted approach. True, their introduction argues that the left, as a form of counter-culture, continued to thrive throughout the 1980s. But not all observers would agree that there was “an underlying strength in the Labour Party” in the 1980s [6]. Indeed, one could argue that Labour was saved from oblivion, especially in 1983, by an electoral system which has often been criticised on democratic grounds, but which Labour has always protected as assiduously as the Conservatives. Thus, the “strong”, thriving party of the 1980s was in reality – pace the most enthusiastic activists at the time – well and truly up against it, facing a number of fundamental issues which did not admit of straightforward solutions. And the editors are not afraid to confront these: not least the question of Labour’s class-oriented programme in a society where the significance of class was clearly undergoing a radical transformation and the party’s “reaction to affluence” [9] was proving a major obstacle. In many ways, the challenge of steering Labour away from dependency on the “working-class vote” towards a more nuanced, more plural political ambition is the theme which runs right through the nine contributions to the book. These are divided into three different sections: I – The Crisis of the Labour Party; II – The British left in a global context; III – Currents of the wider left.


Part I opens with a chapter by Eric Shaw [“Retrieving or re-imagining the past? The case of ‘Old Labour’”], who meets head-on the problem of Labour’s internal ideological divisions. He puts forward an engaging assessment of a particularly troubled period in Labour’s complex history. In what has always been an organisation containing a range of views from moderate / reformist to radical / revolutionary, disagreement and conflict typify the internal workings of the party. To what extent was “Old Labour” a rhetorical construct deftly spun by “New Labour” for its own advantage? To what extent was the latter itself merely a discourse? Shaw’s discussion shows that engineering the escape of historical fact from the prison house of language is no easy matter. The charge of ideological inflexibility levelled at “Old Labour” by “New Labour” is difficult to substantiate. Shaw is right to suggest that such rhetoric is inaccurate: Labour is not incapable of change, as the recent upsets within the party have once again underlined. To say that “New Labour” was “re-imagining the past,” however, is probably paying New Labour too much of a compliment or presenting the changes taking place during the 1980s as more conspiratorial or sinister than they really were. Was this not what Shaw himself correctly identifies elsewhere in his essay as an obvious “strategy” to re-package the party for electoral purposes? And as Shaw points out, the policy review in the wake of the 1987 election defeat, for example, laid much of the groundwork for New Labour: “the shift from Keynesianism […] unequivocally began before Blair’s accession to the leadership” (Shaw’s emphasis : 35). Indeed, that shift was arguably made as early as 1976 when the leadership had already announced to the party conference that it was impossible to “spend your way out of a recession”: a point which only emphasises Shaw’s argument. Change was still, was always on the agenda, though Labour’s long period in opposition beginning in 1979 no doubt made the internal evolution more difficult and more painful.


Martin Farr (“Leading the Labour Party in the 1980s”), like Shaw [38-39], does not forget the voters. Discussing the leadership of James Callaghan, Michael Foot, and Neil Kinnock, Farr reminds us that “Much depended on whether the public could imagine each of the three leaders as Prime minister” [54]. Farr produces the telling anecdote about Michael Foot that he “remained unchallenged despite, according to one journalist, there not being an MP ‘who believed privately’ that he would be elected Prime Minister” [56]. Farr stresses this a little further on: “an unconvincing leader could be the biggest reason why a voter would not vote for the party” [61], something the Labour left, for whom policies were more important than the leader, was reluctant to accept. Of the three leaders discussed here, Kinnock gets the most sympathetic hearing. Although implicit in much of what Farr writes, a direct comparison between the post-Wilson period and more recent Labour Party history might have been apposite. The post-Blair trio of Brown, Miliband and Corbyn could perhaps be seen as presenting a number of potential parallels: a Prime Minister on the way out, followed by acrimonious leadership contests which returned two leaders – one moderate, the other of the left – neither of them being perceived by the voters as Prime Ministerable…? The comparison would certainly be an interesting one and may even hold lessons for the present incumbent.


Paul Bloomfield (“Labour’s liberalism”) prefers to make a case for Labour in the 1980s via the party’s attitudes “in the area of social policy” [70]: not least in the face of resurgent “Victorian” values under the Conservative administrations of Margaret Thatcher. Bloomfield’s objective is a fair one, but arguably runs up against some interesting complexities. Few would want to contest the idea that Labour’s libertarian streak achieved particular prominence during the 1966-70 government. Yet, as Bloomfield reminds us, key aspects of Labour’s programme then were carried into legislation in spite of “disdain among its own supporters” [72]. The party’s attitudes to “video nasties” in the 1980s threw up similar ambiguities and contradictions. While these do not put into question the important role of Labour in generating momentum for progressive social policy through the 1980s, they remind us of complexities which must colour any evaluation of social policy which comes from “the left”. Labour’s apparent pre-eminence where libertarian questions were debated – in the 1980s, but at other times too – is not perhaps as clear-cut as one might first assume. The “Conservative Party’s moral puritanism” [70], after all, found – and perhaps still finds – an echo within the Labour movement and Labour Party in the visible traces of the non-conformist conscience, part of which migrated there as the Liberal Party declined between the wars. Neither does the fact that Labour’s libertarian tradition (mentioned briefly by Bloomfield : 72) persisted in championing individual choice in matters of “morality” through the 1980s have to be seen as inconsistent or at odds with individual choice more generally, including choice as propounded by the “New Right”. Labour’s liberalism, with its emphasis on personal freedoms, meant that Labour, too, was able to espouse policies of free choice and the individual’s right to choose and right to enjoy. It was not necessary in the 1980s to be a “traditional” Tory supporter to believe in the virtues of choice. True, Labour spoke up for some such choices – e.g. in relation to sexuality – more eloquently and more loudly than any Conservative during the period covered by this volume. In doing so Labour was honouring its libertarian tradition, but also doing what the Opposition is required to do: oppose the government. Offering personal choice as a central plank of policy was not always sufficient, however, to seduce the “working-class” vote which, contrary to what Bloomfield appears to imply [84], was not, and never had been, automatically cast in favour of the Labour Party. In the 1980s not all voters-consumers were choosy about choice or necessarily had a clear hierarchy or taxonomy of choices. Choice was choice, and many were drawn to vote for the party which offered the most of it.


Richard Carr’s clear, honest, articulate essay on “responsible capitalism” returns to the statist, rather than the individualist, dimension in Labour thinking, and addresses Labour’s project for a National Investment Bank, using this as a weathervane for the state of play between left and right, and between the party and the voters. Over time, the policy incorporated evolutions which were indicative of Labour’s move from “self-satisfied opposition to the compromises inherent in making a serious bid for office” [91]. Like Farr and Shaw, Richard Carr recognises that electoral fortunes are important for any political party which aspires to exist as something other than a pressure or protest group: and for Carr Labour remained, during this period, “ultimately unelectable” [92]. The NIB and its final demise become, for Carr, a lens through which to witness the birth of New Labour, a form of economic moderation emerging as the key to Labour’s success in 1997, as Labour shaded away from statist interventionism and back, in things economic as in others, towards a form of choice, in which the state was “strategic” and designed to “enable”.


The three “Currents of the wider left” which compose the third and final section of the book look in turn at Militant, the miners’ strike and black radicalism. All three highlight areas of political action which, without doubt, profoundly affected voters’ perceptions of the Labour Party during the 1980s. Neil Pye’s account of Militant’s activities in Liverpool chronicles the sometimes sobering events which occurred in that city, used as a “laboratory” by Militant, in its attempt to mount a challenge to Thatcherism, but also to the Labour Party itself. Pye concludes that “Militant wanted to move the party to the left, but, in the end, its actions pushed it to the right” [166]. Maroula Joannou’s piece on “the miners’ strike and its supporters” concludes that the protracted, intense struggle was, likewise, part of a losing battle waged against Thatcherism and an unsuccessful attempt to radicalise Labour, hindered as the strike was by the “lacerating internal divisions” [175] within the NUM. The miners’ strike proved to be a “watershed in industrial relations” [172], and a new kind of strike, Joannou argues, given the depth and breadth of support which it generated for what was so clearly a downtrodden minority, despised by many members of Thatcher’s government. The discriminated minority is something which Robin Bunce analyses equally well in relation to “black radicalism in the long 1980s”. In a piece centred on the collective “Race Today”, a group heavily influenced by C.L.R. James and “the realisation of [his] vision of a small organisation” [206], Bunce shows how the collective, politically active between 1975 and 1991, was “the centre of the fight for black rights in Britain” [194] and how it refused to see black Britons as “helpless victims”, expressing and implementing a desire to accelerate “black self-organisation” [195]. The Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981 epitomised this attitude and was, according to Bunce, “the largest demonstration of black people in British history” [199]. However, from this high point, followed by the Brixton riots or “insurrection” [199-201], the collective’s leading figure, Darcus Howe, was slowly but inexorably subsumed by a career in the media and Race Today was finally dissolved in April 1991, having – according to Howe – “exhausted the moment” [206].


Between the chapters devoted to the “crisis” in the Labour Party in part I and the three micro-histories of the “wider” left in part III, the book presents two essays on “The British left in a global context”. Jonathan Davis compares the “perestroika” in the USSR and the restructuring of the British Labour Party, and sees in them evidence for an interrelationship, a dialogue about the “state-led assumptions” [115] of the left, and the way in which these were being reconsidered. Davis makes a very good case for the importance of an international perspective to better understand the development of new positions being taken up within the Labour Party. The themes of consumerism and choice emerge once more and the attendant need for “flexibility in the party’s economic models” [125]. Although Davis perhaps gives too much credit to Thatcher and Reagan for initiating new economic conditions, when in practice they were to a great extent benefitting from them, he shows well how Labour was “forced to change by events beyond its control” [126]. John Callaghan shows just how much beyond the control of the Labour Party were the influences and forces at work in “the international context”. His perspective is that of the global historian and his context the process of globalisation itself, a process which brought the powerful Soviet Union to change: small wonder, then, that Britain’s Labour Party should see its own political fortunes influenced by such forces. Given his perspective and the broad and revealing sweep of his arguments, Callaghan’s piece might well have been better placed at the head of the volume.


Inspired by a conference held at Anglia Ruskin University in November 2014, this is at times an illuminating book and always a serious one, offering the reader a number of full and useful discussions. One has to admire the decision to look at Labour and the left during the 1980s: it is counter-intuitive in the extreme to see that period as one pregnant with promise for radical left-wing politics in Britain. By the same token, however, one might argue that if, to paraphrase Peter Tatchell [xi], something big didn’t stir within Labour during the Thatcher years, when on earth would it? But the “something big” turned out not to be Militant or the “wider left”, but New Labour and Tony Blair. Did the actions and activism of the 1980s left bear any of the desired fruit at all? Or did they, in the image of Neil Pye’s assessment of Militant, look to push Britain to the left but end up pushing it to the right, and into the arms of a waiting “Thatcherite consensus”? The book shows that Labour and the left in the 1980s made a definite contribution to social change and to the promotion of diversity and equality. Yet recent events, Brexit chief among them, show – sadly – that such an evolution does not seem to have had any uniform or durable impact. A much broader social history of Britain since the end of the Callaghan government would be needed to confirm that, or otherwise. As far as the politics is concerned, Neil Kinnock’s remark, quoted by Martin Farr, surely remains true: “in the end it’s about winning elections” [60].


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