British Labour in identity crisis


The British Labour Party is looking for a new way of presenting itself to an electorate that has rejected it at the last four general elections. Major changes are needed if the party is to find success at the polls five years hence; the battle to determine the character of the Labour Party has begun. From London, FRANK NOAKES looks at some of the debates leading up to the party's annual conference at Blackpool in October.

"The first thing to remember is that the Labour Party is not and has never been a socialist party", says MP Tony Benn. That much is now agreed by all. The debates today inside Britain's largest party are centred on what sort of party it will be going into the 21st century.

Most controversially, that debate will focus initially on the organisational link between the Labour Party and the trade union movement. The likely changes to be wrought, and the consequences that flow from them, will have profound implications for politics.

The post mortem on the election defeat, conducted by the Shadow Communications Agency, defined Labour's problem as "negative perceptions of its core values, images and historical association" among the electorate. This view is supported by the party "modernisers", the "new realists".

Tony Blair, shadow home affairs spokesperson, is a leading member and ideologue of this group. The young Blair, tipped as the next leader, says: "The question that had to be answered ... was 'Did we come to lose the general election because of Neil Kinnock's reforms, or did we lose because they did not go far enough?' There is now general agreement that they need to go further. We came only this far because we failed to define Labour's

modern identity sufficiently."

Blair insists that Labour must recognise that its postwar successes were based on the belief that Labour could best provide individual advancement. Labour must reposition its concept of community, not in terms of a centralised state, but rather within the context of the individual's aspirations.

Education spokesperson Derek Fatchett, from the same camp as Blair, worries that Labour has run out of ideas. "Our model now must be Mrs T [Thatcher]. No-one can accuse her of being an intellectual, but she turned the Tories from an anti-ideas party into an ideas party. It will mean a cultural shift so that someone who comes up with a novel idea is not accused of betrayal, or rocking the boat."

This fine, liberal notion is not extended to the left in the party: the witch-hunting and purging of the left continues apace. A further 27 members were suspended recently, in a step preliminary to expulsion.


Many media pundits predicted the left's revenge would be something to behold if Kinnock's "new realism" failed to bring the expected electoral victory. This has not materialised, leading the Guardian newspaper to taunt that the left "is a shrunken , toothless, pussy-cat of a tiger".

Ken Livingstone, outspoken member of the once powerful Socialist Campaign Group of parliamentarians, says we have witnessed a triumph of style over substance and the complete triumph of the right within the party. He points out that the soft-left group, Tribune, has become the main vehicle for the right.

These were Kinnock's main backers and grasped the

"new realist" nettle most firmly and have taken it to its logical conclusion: the promotion of the individual to the detriment of the collective; rejection of the Labour Party's connection with the trade union movement; and a philosophical faith in the market.

Union link

The push from the "new realists" is in the direction of a US Democratic Party-style organisation, drawing some support from the union movement, but completely independent of it. Blair, for instance, favours the retention of 85% of the Tories' anti-union legislation. His faction's argument with the Tories revolves around style and pace, rather than direction.

John Smith, Labour's new leader, is the embodiment of the old conservative Labour tradition. His creed is pragmatism. While the current flows strongly against the left in world politics, the Labour right, without a clear program other than winning high political office, will go the way of the new radical right.

In the long run, Smith's conservative approach might not be up to the forced pace promoted by Blair. This could lead to Smith being replaced by Blair and company prior to the next elections.

The last National Executive Committee meeting, in June, reduced the bloc vote for trade unions in internal party forums from 90 to 70%. (The bloc vote, based on the 5 million members of the affiliated unions, allows a few union officials to cast a massive vote.)

While the parliamentary left backed this move, the left in general sees as absolutely fundamental the fight to maintain the constitutional links with the union movement. Ironically, the trade union votes in preselection of party candidates and on policy questions usually support the right.

A confidential paper, leaked to the press, suggests four options for dealing with the union connection. They range from maintaining the status quo through to a radical break. Any moves to untie the constitutional knot completely are likely to be gradual, not least of all because Labour still relies heavily on unions for its finances.

Tony Benn, prominent left-winger of many decades, told Green Left Weekly that if the links with the trade unions were severed, he would leave the party. The issue runs very deep for the hard Labour left.

New party?

Miners' union president Arthur Scargill urges the left to remain in the party and fight, but warns: "If the party continues its lemming-like approach of breaking the links with the unions, there is a distinct possibility of a new party emerging based on the trade union movement".

While it maintains its ties with the unions and remains a mass party (paper membership is about 260,000), Labour is a force for the left and progressive movements to contend with. A number of radical left groups continue to work within the party, on the basis of its working-class roots and despite its rightist politics. These left groups, and others, have consistently argued against the building of other left/progressive parties as being sectarian. They fear that such a course leads to isolation from working class.

If the Labour-union link is broken, it is just possible that an independent broad left party might emerge. This could be a significant step forward for the fractured and ineffective left. The NewLabour Party experience in New Zealand, where a mass-based alternative to the old right-wing Labour Party has been constructed, might point the way forward for the embattled left here.

In the immediate future, most combatants in the fight for Labour's future will come away from the annual conference less than satisfied. The left will feel that the direction is wrong, and the "new realists" that changes aren't coming fast enough.

The debate is not timeless, however. For the right it must be concluded before the next elections, and the way smoothed for the possible formation of a coalition government with the Liberal-Democrats, should that be necessary.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.