Saturday, 26 May 2007

Past "Labour Left" Campaigns - guest posts by Comrade Harry Barnes

Below are two guest posts written by Comrade Harry Barnes. In them, he deals with past Labour Leadership elections and the lessons which they represent for members of the Labour Left. The original articles can be found here and here. Many thanks to Comrade Harry Barnes for allowing the Labour Left Forum to re-produce his insightful articles.
Beyond Our Ken

John McDonnell's Role ModelJohn is not the first member of the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) to fail to gain sufficient nominations to stand for the Leadership of the Labour Party. Ken Livingstone went down that path in 1992.

After Labour's defeat in the 1992 Election, Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley bounced the Labour Party into elections for Leader and Deputy by their premature resignations, which gave the Party little time to give the matter much thought.

We can hardly plead that we were unprepared this time - although what is
happening is again devoid of questioning and analysis.

Trying To Talk Ken Out Of Standing

As soon as Neil and Roy announced their intention to resign, SCG weekly meetings were dominated by how we should respond. Opinions differed strongly, with some keen to push Ken Livingstone's candidature. After all, Ken enjoyed a high media profile.

Yet there were strong voices arguing against running any candidate. For a while no-one sort to test the water by moving for a vote on the matter. But time started to run out and those supporting Ken needed to move. This was done at a poorly attended meeting which was held as a parliament was either moving in or out of recess - I forget which.

There were only seven MPs present for the crucial meeting. These were Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner, Ken Livingstone, John Austin (who was newly elected and was then known as John Austin-Walker), the late Bernie Grant, the late Bob Cryer and myself.

Crunch Time

At that time, Ken and Bernie had been at loggerheads over the best way to pursue anti-racist activities. Ken was fully involved in the work of the Anti Racist Alliance, whilst Bernie was active with the Anti Nazi League. Ken and Bernie barely seemed to be on speaking terms.

It was, therefore, something of a surprise when Ken informed us that if he stood for the leadership he was in favour of Bernie standing as his running mate for the post of Deputy. Thankfully for Ken, Bernie liked the idea.Dennis Skinner and Bob Cryer were strong supporters of the notion that the Group should run candidates, so they supported the proposal for a Ken-Bernie ticket.

Tony Benn was probably chairing the meeting, as he did not vote. John Austin-Walker and myself opposed the proposal, as we felt that it would be counter-productive both inside the newly elected Parliamentary Labour Party and throughout the wider movement.Otherwise tied at 2-2 (Skinner and Cryer vs Austin-Walker and Barnes), the outcome was determined by the votes of the would-be candidates.

Needless to say without Ken and Bernie even having widespread support amongst the missing members of the SCG, they failed badly to obtain the required number of nominations from Labour MPs.

Tony's Contribution

The last time the SCG moved successfully to secure a nomination for the Labour Leadership was in 1988 when Tony Benn challenged the then incumbent Leader, Neil Kinnock. Tony obtained only 11.4% of the vote. (This contest is not to be confused with his famous narrow defeat by Dennis Healy for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party in 1981, during the high-water mark of Bennism.)

Before Tony's name went forward, there were again lengthy weekly debates in the SCG. I remember Red Dawn's reaction (i.e. Dawn Primarolo) in particular. She was a strong supporter of Tony Benn's political position and initially she argued forcefully in support of him standing. But when she discussed the situation with left activists in her Bristol Constituency (the very people who she thought would support her line), she was shocked to find them repeating the same warnings that some of us were putting to her at SCG meetings. She then changed her stance. Perhaps this was the start of her move into the Gordon Brown camp.

An immediate consequence of Tony's failed candidature in 1988 was that the Labour Party raised the hurdle for MPs' nominations beyond the then 10% level - a move that was unhelpful to John McDonnell in the long run.Yield Not To TemptationThe SCG and the left generally need to learn the futility in current circumstances of running their own candidates for top Labour positions. It takes activists to the top of the hill and lets them roll down again - as will be seen in John4Leader's comment box and on many a blog.

It was the above reasoning which led me to press for Peter Hain to stand for Leader and not just for Deputy. I judged that for the left he was a plausible candidate who would clear the nominations hurdle, run a campaign we could associate ourselves with and give us an opportunity to have a marginal influence on the future direction of the Party. I did not expect him to win, but to have some influence on Gordon Brown via his campaign.

As Peter did not stand for Leader (and few saw the significance of pushing him to stand), I eventually moved at the 11th hour to support John McDonnell - as (given the eventual lack of choice) I would have nominated him if I had still been an MP. Which is more than I did for Ken Livingstone in 1988.

But none of us should be placed in such a position. When it comes to issues as key as the Leadership of the Labour Party, the left and its MPs should make coherent moves to seek out feasible candidates. Unfortunately, that position has never won through in the SCG - except as below.

1988, 1992, 2007 Or 1994?

Although I know what went on in the SCG over the 1988 and 1992 Leadership contests, I'm not privy to what happened this year. But I am keen to find out.

There has, however, been one Leadership election where the SCG adopted the approach I favour. In 1994, I actively campaigned alongside Ken Livingstone and others for Margaret Beckett in the contest which Tony Blair won. Margaret might not seem to be a standard bearer for "left of centre" politics in current circumstances, but she did in 1994 (and for periods afterwards). At the least she would have maintained the Labourite stance of John Smith and would not have propagated a New Labour line - she was the Peter Hain of her time.


In Defence Of The 1994 Margaret Beckett

Here is a criticism of those of us on the Labour Left who supported Margaret Beckett in the 1994 Labour Leadership election campaign. Below, I give my response.

Why A Margaret Beckett Ticket in 1994?

(1) Unless someone had foreknowledge, the pros and cons of Margaret's actions since the 1994 Campaign are irrelevant to this assessment.

(2) Overwhelmingly in her favour - she was not Tony Blair.

(3) There was no-one to her left who could have obtained the nominations, unless the 1994 John Prescott (who also stood) is considered to have occupied that position.

(4) If anyone to her left had by magic gained the nominations, they would not have been able to mount a feasible campaign. The bulk of the Party members did not wish to upset the apple-cart after 15 years in opposition.

(5) As Deputy Leader under John Smith then Leader after his death, she first followed and then sustained his stance. Although John Smith was no left-winger, he was in the Labourite tradition and he did not seek to ditch Democratic Socialism and Labourism as being illegitimate parts of the Labour tradition.

(6) She had a sound grasp of the Democratic Socialist case. Including -

* In 1970 she became a Researcher to the Labour Party on Industrial Policy and worked closely with Judith Hart and Stuart Holland on the proposals which emerged in Labour Programme of 1973 and the 1974 General Election Manifesto which reflected and included Tony Benn's famous formula of making "a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families".

* When looking for a left-wing candidate in 1973, the Lincoln Labour Party first approached Margaret (then known as Margaret Jackson) at the Labour Party Conference. In February 1974, she stood against their former candidate Dick Taverne - the right-wing dissident.Although she lost, she took the seat during the later October General Election of that year. She moved straight into Government positions, but was seen as being on the Left.

* She lost her seat at the 1979 General Election, but she was successful as a left-wing candidate for the National Executive Committee in 1980 and actively supported Tony Benn's famous but narrowly unsuccessful campaign for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party (against Dennis Healy) in 1981.

* She returned to Parliament in 1983, as MP for Derby South. She joined the Socialist Campaign Group and only resigned in 1988 over Tony Benn's counter-productive decision to stand for Party Leader against Neil Kinnock, the incumbent. Three other women MPs resigned with her and the Group became more isolated than ever.

(7) Although she moved away from the Hard Left from 1988, within the confines of a front-bench position she had a good democratic socialist record as Opposition Spokesperson on (a) Social Security (held since 1984 to 1989) (b) Treasury matters (Shadow to the Chief Secretary 1989 to 1992) and (c) Deputy Leader 1992-1994). Although I was one of those who remained in the Socialist Campaign Group, I never considered myself to be part of either the Hard or (what used to be called) the Soft Left - but I attempted to work on both elements to show them that there was (and are still) socialist alternatives. Although confined by office-holding, I felt that Margaret had a similar approach.

In assessing whether it was reasonable for the Left to back Margaret Beckett those 13 years ago, we must remember that this was a decade before the invasion of Iraq (and many other mistaken New Labour moves.) I happen to think that few of these major errors would have occurred if she had won that Leadership vote, even though I am sorry that she stuck so closely to office from 1994.

End of posts


Mike Baldock said...

This is interesting as history, but seems of little use in the current circumstances, as we don't have a leadership election coming up, and probably won't till at least 2009/10.

However, there are 2 points I'd like to make.

1) In the recent non-election the issue of the left deciding to support a soft left candidate didn't arise - there wasn't any MP that could be described as soft-left apparently willing to run the risk of upsetting Gordon. This applied as much to the Blairites too remember!
Also, John's campaign was hardly one designed to appeal exclusively to the 'hard' left - there was no great demand for the nationalisation of all industries for example. John actually ran a very balanced campaign that any true soft-left MP should have had the bottle to sign up to in the absence of someone from their particular brand being so willing.

2) If someone of some credibilty from the soft-left had stood, should we then have thrown everything into supporting them at the expense of a credible challenger from the Campaign Group? I don't think so.
John ran a strong and reinvigorating campaign that inspired many. As members we should have had the chance to vote for him on that basis. A strong soft-left candidate that hadn't signed up too the Blair/Brownite agenda might have made for a valid second choice in the election, but we should not have been denied the chance to declare for our favoured choice - unless, in the same way McDonnell and Meacher had to make a pact - neither the left or soft left could get enough nominations to run. Then, depending on circumstances, there could be one MP out of the united left to go forward into the election and receive a united support.

But until there is another election, this is pretty much waffle.
It does, however, underline a comment elsewhere that we should be trying to get our voice heard in soft-left meetings and groups a lot more, rather than just talking amongst ourselves. With the current rightwing domination, we have to show the 'middle ground' that we offer a realistic alternative to simply jumping into bed with the Gordon camp.

The next few months must see us trying to build and develop within ourselves, but also to try and develop areas of agreement with the soft-left that let's them work with us at times...

Doctor Dunc said...

Very sensible points, I think, Mike.

Doctor Dunc said...

I don't know whether to reply to Harry here or there!

Overall - I voted for Margaret in '94 too (partly following Harry's lead, as it happens, along with other left colleagues). But I would have liked to have had the chance to vote for someone to Margaret's left and - as we have a preferential system for leadership elections - my having the chance to do so should not have adversely effected Margaret's chances unless the person to her left was preferred by the party to her (which, if so, shouldn't be a bad thing!) The only point at which there is straight competition and therefore no chance to put a 'lesser evil' second, is at the stage of parliamentary nominations.

Now clearly that was the reality with which Harry was confronted, so fair enough that he backed a 'compromise' candidate. But we need to reform the system so that we can make proper use of the preferential system and therefore no section of the party is 'split' by a contested vote.

There wasn't a 'centre-left' option this time (that isn't intended as a criticism of Michael Meacher, I just don't think he is perceived as being especially of the centre, or of being their candidate) but there being one should not negate the possibility of a left candidate. Harry wanted Peter Hain to stand: well I should be able to give John McDonnell my first preference, and a second preference to somebody like Hain (just as people will be able to do in the deputy election if they can muster some enthusiasm).

It's a long time till there'll be another leadership election, and I hope the rules of engagement will be different. But, whatever the rules, I think the left will once again be duty bound to put a candidate forward (I hope it will be John) and if there is a reasonable candidate to John's right, but to whoever else may be standing's left, they will have a strong case for getting second preferences from the left (as, I hope, John would from many of them).

Harry Barnes said...

mike baldock and doctor dunc,

A question which arises from what you both say is what ever happened to the soft left? Has it re-emerged via Compass or is this group better described as a leftward leaning form of New Labourism? Even Robin Cook when he resigned from the Government never moved to generate an overall left stance amongst back-benchers and the wider Party.

The decline of the soft left can't all be explained by the careerist interests of its MPs or of everyone tucking in behind Blair as a means to ensure electoral victory. Was it not also a result of the soft left moving over to the New Labour ideology of trying to marry the freedom's of the market with forms of social justice? They became so soft and pessimistic about Britain and the rest of the world that they thought nothing more could be achieved.

We don't have soft left candidates at the moment, because there is vitually no longer a soft (highly gradulist) left any more - (except the residual bits of the Peter Hains?)

I always felt that the soft left were too soft and the hard left too hard. I suppose that I was for the goldilock tendency. But if the softs have almost disappeared and the hards are mainly a residual element from the high water-mark of Bennism, then what is left of the left needs to engage in a fundamental re-think. My own small (but long-winded) contribution to this debate is appearing in three parts on my blog, entitled "Towards A Socialist Perspective." Goldilock rides again.