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How the right made Labour safe for business

Fightback! Labour’s traditional right in the 1970s and 1980s

By Dianne Hayter

Manchester University Press 2005


Reviewed by Tony Mulhearn

DIANNE HAYTER sets the scene: "How did the right wing, which was internally unpopular with rank and file active party members, wrest control from the left?"

She prefaces her analysis with a description of labour movement protocol from 1945 until the 1960s, when local party members "having selected (with union input) their parliamentary candidates, largely respected MPs’ decisions, concentrating on campaigning and supporting them within the constituency". Thus the autonomy of MPs was acceptable to the Labour Party right wing and capitalist establishment. Hayter characterises this cosy arrangement as the ‘settlement’.

The settlement was first breached on the issue of unilateralism, when Hugh Gaitskell was defeated at Labour Party conference in 1961. Instrumental in getting the following year’s conference to overturn that decision was the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, dominated by the right-wing trade union bureaucracy. This was a harbinger for the protection of right-wing MPs in the 1970s and 1980s.

Running through the book is the outlook that anything the left proposes which vaguely challenges capitalism causes splits and undermines ‘electability’; right-wing policy, supportive of capitalism, is deemed to create and maintain harmony. Of course, the socialist proposals of Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party) invited the united wrath of all to the right of Tribune and some within that group.

Hayter explains the role of the key organisations working assiduously to destroy the left’s influence and drive Militant out of the party. The alleged motive was to ‘save’ the party, and make it ‘electable’. She does not explain for what purpose a Labour Party should be elected.

The book says nothing to those who were active during the period under discussion. But revealed in detail is the role of the trade union bureaucracy whose fear of fundamental change in society fuelled its commitment to restoring the ‘settlement’, which began to fracture after Labour’s defeat in 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher.

Driving the right wing to organise was the challenge to Labour MPs’ independence from rank-and-file party organisations. National Executive Committee (NEC) and conference support for rule changes to facilitate the removal of MPs and for NEC control over the election manifesto, drove the Manifesto Group of Labour MPs into hysterical demands for change in the composition of the NEC and for the expulsion of Militant. More astute right-wingers recognised that this group was so unpopular and so clearly motivated by self-interest that they had little chance of winning support among the party’s heavy reserves, the trade unions. Thus the principal elements in the right-wing assault were spearheaded by Labour Solidarity, Forward Labour, Campaign for a Labour Victory and, the key piece in the jigsaw, the ‘St Ermins Group’ of right-wing union leaders (who met at St Ermins Hotel, Westminster). The initial core of the latter consisted of Frank Chapple and his lieutenant, John Spellar, Terry Duffy, Roy Grantham and Brian Stanley, together with John Golding and Charles Turnock (later dubbed ‘Jackboot Charlie’ for his role as chairman of the committee that launched the witch-hunt in Liverpool). Each of these groups would subsequently claim credit for ‘saving the party they loved’.

What separated the St Ermins group from the others were the resources at their disposal and the organisational expertise of full-time officials. The GMB, EETPU and GPMU unions all released full-time officials to wrest control of the NEC from the Bennite left, thus facilitating the expulsion of Militant. Whilst these groups had tactical differences, policy differences did not exist: "The St Ermins Group (and its smaller cousin, Forward Labour) and Labour Solidarity were effectively policy-free zones". The issues which united them were rolling back rank-and-file control of MPs, electing the leadership, and drafting the election manifesto. The glue holding them together was a shared hatred of Militant, whose clarity in policy, organisational skills and growing support drove them to paroxysms of fury.

The election of Michael Foot as leader, after Jim Callaghan’s defeat in 1979, opened up a new period of infighting. Foot’s initial refusal to attack Militant – fuelled by his experience as a victim of the Gaitskell-inspired witch-hunts of the 1950s – provoked the wrath of the Manifesto Group. It split to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) after the 1981 Labour Party conference in Brighton, after the conference had transferred responsibility for electing the party’s leader from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to an electoral college in which MPs had only 30% of the vote.

Labour’s defeat by Thatcher in the post-Falkland war election in 1983, assisted by the split in the anti-Tory vote by the SDP, reignited right-wing attacks. Naturally, they did not blame SDP defectors or the proto-Thatcherite policies of public expenditure cuts and wage restraint pursued by Callaghan and Denis Healey but, with the frenzied encouragement of the media spearheaded by the Murdoch/Maxwell axis, the right wing went into overdrive in denouncing the left. Alarm was fuelled by the election of Militant councillors in Liverpool and MPs Terry Fields, Dave Nellist and Pat Wall. The resolve of the right wing was strengthened by the departure of Jack Jones, left-wing leader of the TGWU, and the replacement of engineers’ union leader, Hugh Scanlon, by right-winger Terry Duffy. Between them these two unions wielded about two million block votes which could have frustrated the machinations of the right wing. But the road had been opened for the expulsion of the Militant editorial board.

The right wing argued for the need to take control of party organisations out of the hands of ‘activists’, a term which now acquired opprobrium in the media, and hand decision-making to the membership. They did a 180-degree turn from wanting the PLP to retain all power to devolving power through ‘one member one vote’ (Omov). The EETPU made funding available to constituencies which undertook to ballot their whole membership on the election of leader and deputy.

This reached its apogee during the Benn/Healey contest for deputy leader in 1983. The activists were charged with failure to reflect the desires of the ‘ordinary members’ who were cast as the sensible majority. Dave Nellist, among others, is quoted as saying that the introduction of Omov would allow four millionaire press barons to exercise immense influence in determining the leadership. The riposte in a political bulletin of the EETPU smugly quoted the Earl of Rutland who opposed an extension of suffrage in 1867: "I do not think the state of education in the country is sufficiently advanced to enable the government safely to propose so large a measure as that of household suffrage". In 1867, however, there was no evidence of an all-intrusive and powerful media, owned and controlled by a tiny group of millionaires, virulently hostile to even the most faltering steps in a socialist direction.

Hayter is uncritical of MPs who hysterically denounced the very procedure which had selected and maintained them as MPs for, in many cases, decades. The role of the media as an instrument of the right wing is largely ignored, except to blame the left for giving it ammunition with which to beat the party.

This Alice-in-Wonderland outlook is summed up in a passage which reflects on the 1987 election defeat. With the right wing in control – Neil Kinnock lionised as the saviour of the party, praised for his attack on Liverpool – Labour scored the second lowest vote since 1931. Brian Gould, described as the mastermind behind this catastrophe, came top of the poll in the shadow cabinet elections immediately following Labour’s defeat.

Naturally, the right wing claims credit for Labour election victories under Tony Blair’s leadership, not recognising that New Labour was elected in the main not for what it was but for what it wasn’t: a sleaze-ridden Tory government, riven by revelations of corruption at the highest level.

In closing, Hayter reflects on whether the changes wrought by the right wing have served the movement well. She answers with the observation: "The NEC, having ceded policy-making to the National Policy Forum, is left with little role and has failed to retain its pre-eminence over organisational issues (candidate selection issues, campaign organisation, staffing) as these are now led by Number 10. Furthermore, the creation of the so-called party chairman, appointed by the prime minister and with a cabinet seat, has given unparalleled power to the government over a political party".

This book will make interesting reading for those who, in opposing the campaign for a new mass party of the working class, argue that New Labour can be reclaimed. It reveals the role of right-wing trade union leaders interested only in maintaining the status quo in society. They, with complicit support of so-called lefts, unleashed forces that ultimately marginalised trade unions, destroyed internal party democracy and its socialist content, thus changing the party of labour into an instrument of neo-liberalism.


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