Sunday, March 20, 2011

Political Education and the Labour Party

A Conference with the above title was held in Rotherham on Saturday. I suspect that a number of democratic socialists (but thankfully not all) were put off attending when they saw that it was organised by the local Rotherham MP Denis MacShane and that Gerald Kaufman and David Owen were key participants. For at first glance it looked like an anti-left stitch-up. And indeed this might have been part of its intention.

The title of the Conference refers to the General Elections which followed Ramsay MacDonald setting up a National Government, the Attlee Government running out of steam and Michael Foot becoming leader of the Labour Party. These elections led to Labour being in a minority position in parliament for three periods which each spanned between 13 and 14 years.

The implications behind the title being that to avoid such periods in the wilderness, Labour should have stuck behind Ramsay MacDonald, obtained a more dynamic leader than Attlee if Bevanism was to have been nipped in the bud, and just never ever have acquired Michael Foot as leader as he was a loser. The conclusion which is thought to follow from such an approach is that a right wing New Labour agenda is needed in current circumstances.

But as we had a seven hour day with only short breaks and contributions from a series of independently minded academics, Polly Toynbee and others, plus audience participation; other lessons emerged. In fact in the concluding comments of the day from Andrew Gamble a Professor of Politics at Cambridge, he pointed out that the most telling collapse of Labour support emerged in the 1970s and not in the three periods stressed in the title. He could have added that in the ten General Elections from 1974 the Labour vote has only twice topped the 40% mark, yet this level was comfortably surpassed in all the nine post-war elections which proceeded that date. Perhaps if all that talk in the Labour Movement in the early 70s about developing a Social Contact had actually led to the development of a social bond that would have moved us in the direction of sharing, decency and social equality, then our support would not have fallen below the 30% mark in 1983 and 2010.

We were in danger of being provided with a selective one sided diet of the left's failings, covering Jimmy Maxton, Nye Bevan, Michael Foot, past Communist Trade Union leaders, the Ban the Bomb movement, Tony Benn and Militant. But this would hardly amount to a serious analysis. An early contributor David Howell pointed out that Labour support in 1945 was particularly strong amongst first time voters, which covered all those who had not qualified to vote in the previous General Election which was then way back in 1935. This was a cohort of voters who went on to help sustain the Labour vote in numbers of other early post-war elections. The question this leads to is just where can we find such a cohort today who have a clear interest in sharing and equality? What about today's young voters who are concerned about Student Fees, the loss of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a lack of jobs, a world facing massive shortages of essentials, the dangers of climate change and the horrors of third world poverty? If we bring the young on board on such issues we do more than gain a political advantage, we help to revitalise our own beliefs.

Any conference which provides scope for the dialectics of debate, soon moves out of the realm of political propaganda into that of much needed world of political education; something which invariably takes over when carefully expressed disputes and disagreements arise. Even the anti Michael Foot line which was pressed by Kaufman and Owen, provides scope for countervailing considerations. Just why in 1983 did Michael Foot's leadership produce the worst percentage turn out for Labour of any General Election since 1922? Was it all due to his unilateralism, his duffle coat and his left-wing credentials? What about the knock on consequences of Thatcher running a highly populist and successful military campaign over the Falklands, and then there was the massive rupture within the Labour Party which led to the formation of the SDP? David Owen was at the centre of the breakaway and bares a major share of that responsibility for that 1983 election result.

Around 15 speakers made contributions, numbers of whom had sufficient interest in the topic to join the rest of us in the audience over the seven hours. I have always believed that speakers should also be listeners. Even when Hestor Barron confined her remarks to the experience in Durham Mining Constituencies in the 1930s, my concentration did not drop. But then she was discussing the area of my roots and I have read her book on the Durham Coalfield at the time of the 1926 Strike.

The day revealed an important issue for Labour if it is ever to maintain its future and reach its potential. It needs political education, political education, political education. So it is all power to Denis MacShane's elbow. He may have helped to produce something that has more significance than anything he probably ever had in mind.


peezedtee said...

I was one of those who had already left the Labour Party by the time of the SDP launch (but I did not join the SDP either), partly because of its then backward stance on Europe but more because of its inward-looking blinkered tribalism (e.g. over constitutional reform) and its being in hock to trade unions many of whom seemed to be bent on the opposite of the egalitarianism that I wanted (and still want) to support. I don't think it is fair to blame Owen & Co entirely for the 1983 Thatcher victory (which the FPTP voting system made to appear as more of a landslide than it actually was), which was largely due to the Falklands war and also partly to Labour being so divided as well as the left as a whole being split.

Harry Barnes said...

Peezedtee : In 1983 the electoral system actually made the swing against Labour seem to be much smaller than it actually was. The Labour vote dropped from 36.9% in 1979 to 27.6% in 1983. This was Labour's worst percentage vote since 1918. The percentage vote was nearly as bad in 2010 when it fell to 29.0%. Labour obtained 209 seats in 1983, yet the combined take of the Liberal and SDP vote was only 23 seats on a total vote of 25.3% - just 3.7% behind Labour.

I do not argue that Labour could have won the 1983 election without the SDP split. For I stressed that Thatcher had the Falklands factor which she used in her favour. And even if Owen and company had remained in the Labour Party, the voters would still have seen that Labour was a split. But in the formal split that occured, it took the two sides to tango. If Owen and others had remained with Labour, then it is reasonable to argue that the Labour vote would not have fallen below the 30% mark.

Although I campaigned against what was then the Common market in the referendum, I knew that this was a position which could not be sustained once a 2 to 1 vote was obtained in its favour. I then immediately moved to a position which I have maintained ever since of pressing to overcome its manifest defects which centre upon the shallow nature of its democratic arrangements and the growth of its bureacratic centralism.

A huge opportunity for the Trade Unions to move to an equalitarian agenda occured over the dispute between the notions of the Social Contract and free collective bargaining in the mid 70s. The Social Contract needed expanding as a means of moving to social and equalitarian advances.