From “securing…the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof” to opportunity for “realizing our true potential…in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

Here’s a sort of random 1985 news item on Neil Kinnocks steps to expel Militant Tendency from the Labor Party.

1985: Kinnock moves against Militant: The Liverpool district Labour Party has been suspended by its national leadership. The party executive has ordered a full inquiry into the Labour Council after allegations that the revolutionary socialist group Militant Tendency was operating within it. Critics of Militant have said the faction was trying to take over the local party and use it to spread its Trotskyite views.

The video of the old news report is very interesting, for the pacing and content. First of all, a lot more time is spent on on Kinnock’s actual speech than would be acceptable in today’s newscasts. Secondly, Kinnock justifies the suspensions as a move toward Democratic Socialism, ten or so years before Labour altered Clause IV of the party constitution. Kinnock says,

“I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with a far-fetched series of resolutions, and these are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, misplaced, outdated, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council, a Labour council, hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I tell you – and you’ll listen – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and people’s homes and people’s services.”
Fifty Key Figures in Twentieth Century British Politics: Neil Kinnock Page 145 By Keith Laybourne

Kinnock refers to the actions of the Liverpool City Council, which, dominated by the Militant organization, refused the Thatcher government’s requirement that all Councils reduce expenses by 25%. Rather than implement the budget cuts, the Liverpool council cut local public housing fees, thereby reducing its own revenue and in effect demanding that the Government rescind the cuts. Liverpool’s Council decision was intended to benefit the city’s public housing residents, while contesting Kinnock’s policy of accomodation to Thatcher. In the aftermath of the 1983 Conservative parliamentary victory, leftists were demanding that Labour take an non-political road of direct action.Kinnock was signalling that the local parties could not go it alone against the Government. The residents of Liverpool, and by extension anyone who supported Labour, were being asked to choose between fighting the leadership of both political parties, or riding out the storm under Kinnock.

The cuts for Liverpool were recinded at first, on the pretence that a previous Conservative majority on the local Council had already implemented a 25% cut several years before. However, in the following year the Thatcher government ordered a further 25% cut in expenditures. The Liverpool Council once again refused to implement he cuts and went ahead with an unauthorized deficit budget.

The big difference between 1984 and 1985 was the defeat of the National Union of Miners. The NUM went on strike to head off a government plan to remove coal subidies, something that would inevitably lead to mine closures. Labour and Kinnock supported the strike, to an extent, but drew the line at endorsing the direct action tactics of the miners, intended to keep scabs out and the mines closed. In the same November 1985 speech, Kinnock said,

“The strike wore on. The violence built up because the single tactic chosen was that of mass picketing, and so we saw policing on a scale and with a system that has never been seen in Britain before. The court actions came, and by the attitude to the court actions, the NUM leadership ensured that they would face crippling damages as a consequence. To the question: “How did this position arise?”, the man from the lodge in my constituency said: “It arose because nobody really thought it out.”

It was in these circumstances that the Liverpool council once again had to defend its decision to not cooperate, however reluctantly, with the Thatcher government. Militant was taking the position that compromise would only lead more quickly to the undesirable result of reduced public services. The intent was apparently to show the limits of socialist politics within parliamentary government. The effect was to provoke a crisis in the Labour Party, which Kinnock was able to manage much better than Militant. The revolutionaries were in no position to challenge Kinnock for leadership of the and in the speech excerpted above, he is asking the party convention to suspend the Liverpool party, kicking them out.

Not all of Labour supported Kinnock’s action. Many Constituency Labour Parties had shifted to the left following Thatcher’s 1979 victory. Tony Benn and Eric Heffer, as leaders of the left wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and there was a larger group of traditional socialists, who supported the the nationalisations of the 1940s and 50s, but weren’t calling for any kind of revolution. So the vote was controversial, but members of Militant were accused of numerous infractions of the party rules, among other things, so even sympathisers regarded the expulsion as inevitable.

Heaving out the organized Trotskyist faction in the Labor party had the effect of changing the perception of Labour as a ideological party, to an “electable” suitor of swing voters from the Liberal Democrats,”wet” Conservatives and the motivated independents who’d support a change of government. The final stage in the process, was the symbolic alteration to Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution, in which the purposes of the organization are expressed.

As originally written in 1918, Clause IV set out the objectives of the Labour Party as:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

In 1995, the passage was altered to read:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few. Where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe. And where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

The process was politically vindicated with the electoral success of Tony Blair in 1997. The party could afford to introduce the word “socialist” into its platform, while removing any socialist content as a sop to the large and dispirate Left remaining within the party, when election seemed inevitable and the swing voters were not likely to mistake the introduction of an ideological word for the genuine article. There is no more opposition to tack to speak of: Eric Heffer is dead, Tony Benn is retired, (his son is a Blairite) and the selection of magisterial manager Gordon Brown as Blair’s successor is a certainty.

Militant’s remaining supporters inside Labour eventually left to organize independent non-parliamentary campaigns. They enjoyed success encouraging nonpayment of the Poll Tax/Community Charge in Scotland, and later formed the basis of the Scottish Socialist Party. In England, The SSP has 4 members in Scottish Parliament, and while the Scottish and English sections have gone their own way, the organization has a few local councillors in Coventry. It remains active in anti-capitalist campaigns, in a way analgous to the work of a socialist party in the US.

So, now nominally socialist, the Labour Party has hitched its star to a kind of branded “different kind of politics” which is less sustainable the longer it is practiced. Surveys show that the majority of the public believe the party is directionless. The number of independent swing voters has soared since the 1997 elections, meanwhile the party has shrunk to its lowest membership since recordkeeping began. This has had the effect of making the party more desperate to brand itself in the preferences of independents while becoming more dependent on the loans of wealthy donors.

In all this, the Labour Party is arguably no worse than its competitors, the Conservatives and the Liberals, in the way that it operates. Its intentions are distinguishe by definition from those parties, if only for branding purposes. But it began as something quite different and somehow changed from the avowed political instrument of the working class, to managing expectations of opportunity.

Separating the 1918 Labour Party’s wish for “securing…the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof” and the 1995 Labour Party’s intention to provide to opportunity for “realizing our true potential…in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect” is the willingness to support a strike. Labour decided it was never going to regain political power if it risked its institutional electoral reputation in the protection of the individuals undertaking direct action.

Labour was established around the end of World War I, when it seemed that social movements might overthow the political instiutions of Europe. The failure of Militant and the NUM to provoke a crisis that would force Labour into revolutionary action marks the end of those institutions as to serve any socially transformative purpose. The loss of that purpose saved it from disruptions caused by any principled opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but has left it without any discernable purpose aside from managing the messes that unprincipled action will create.

Reference links:

On Wikipedia:

Clause IV

Eric Heffer and Liverpool politics

The 1984 – 1985 UK Miners’ Strike

Thatcher’s Flat Rate “Poll Tax” aka the Community Charge


Posted on December 7, 2006, in Politics. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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