It’s a Big Tent and You’re Not In It: A Short History of Labour Moving to the Right

A bit ago Tony Blair’s chief whip Hilary Armstrong was on the BBC talking about Jeremy Corbyn. She claimed that while Blair was Prime Minister he had protected Corbyn from being kicked out of the Labour caucus despite Corbyn regularly voting against the whip because Blair appreciated the different point-of-view that Corbyn brought to the table. The point of this story, for Armstrong, was to argue that the historical strength of the Labour Party, and especially under Blair’s leadership, was that it was a “broad church.” By rejecting dogmatism, the Labour Party was supposedly able to accommodate a diversity of political positions that reflected the UK as a whole. According to Armstrong, Corbyn’s personal leftist convictions have undermined this broad church coalition. Thus, it is imperative that Corbyn make room for so-called moderate Labour MPs and give them the same freedom to register their convictions that Blair supposedly gave Corbyn. Of course, this ignores that Corbyn spent his first year as leader trying to appease opposition from the right by members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who responded to Corbyn’s efforts by attempting to force him out as leader. One rather doubts that Blair would have been so ecumenical toward Corbyn if he had actually represented a threat to Blair’s leadership. Instead, Corbyn spent the entirety of the Blair administration relegated to the backseats and far from any actual position of power or influence.

Tony Blair, of course, was one of the leading practitioners of triangulation. Like Bill Clinton, his political ideology was based on the conviction that the electorate is essentially conservative in nature and for a left-wing or liberal party to succeed it needed to find the perfect goldilocks position. According to the triangulators of New Labour, Labour needed to cast-off its far left radicalism and move to the political center in order to win. When Blair won a sweeping victory in 1997 the theory seemed to have been proven. While Labour has been in decline ever since, those such as Hilary Armstrong who endorse Blair’s approach continue to maintain what Labour needs to do is adjust to the right to find the current vertex on the political triangle. There is, however, a long history of this debate between the left and right factions in left-wing parties (for example, look up the Mensheviks) and the notion that Labour needs to move to the right in order to win electoral victories was not invented by Tony Blair. Indeed, the debate has been raging for the entirety of the party’s history.

In 1945 and in the aftermath of the Second World War, Clement Atlee’s Labour Party shocked the British establishment by crushing Winston Churchill’s Tories in the 1945 General Election. Labour won nearly 50 percent of the vote and went from 154 to 393 seats in Parliament, resulting in a majority of 196 over the Conservatives. Labour took advantage of this substantial mandate to initiate an ambitious program of social democratic reforms. Major industries were nationalized and a public housing program was initiated in response to the deplorable slum conditions and widespread housing shortages faced by the poor. Most significantly, the National Health Services (NHS) was established in 1948 under the direction of the committed leftist Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. The Atlee Labour government’s achievements were substantial and significantly changed the shape of Britain for the better. However, Britain remained under the shadow of the Second World War and continued to be deeply constrained by debts. In 1950, five years after the war, war rations had yet to be lifted. Meanwhile, the benefits of Labour’s initiatives were yet to be fully realized. Thus, the nearly two hundred seat majority of 1945 was reduced to just five seats in the 1950 General Election. A year later Labour lost to Churchill’s Tories in an incredibly closely fought election that saw the Tories winning the majority of seats despite losing the popular vote.

Once the Tories got back into power they accepted the large part of Atlee’s reforms, adopting what was termed the Postwar Consensus. In doing so, the Conservatives managed to co-opt the popular elements of Labour’s program while also benefiting from coming into power as the UK finally began to recover from the strains created by the Second World War. Thus, Labour found itself stuck on the outside and the Conservatives looked to be securely ensconced on office for the foreseeable future.

During the Atlee administration there had been significant tension between the left and right factions of the Labour Party, which was divided into Bevanites (after the leader of the Labour left Nye Bevan) and the Gaitskellites (after the notable representative of the Labour right, Hugh Gaitskell). The tension between the Bevanites and Gaitskellites particularly began to build when Gaitskell, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced charges for NHS dentures and spectacles. As this violated the NHS’s principle of free treatment on which it had been founded, Bevan and Harold Wilson (the President of the Board of Trade) resigned in protest. After Labour lost the 1951 election, the tension continued to mount as Gaitskell and other members of the so-called moderate faction argued that Bevan and his supporters risked leaving the Labour Party irrevocably tainted with the stain of far-left radicalism—especially sensitive considering as Cold War tensions grew in the 1950s.

In the political climate that followed Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous secret speech in which he denounced Stalin and revealed the extent of Stalinist purges in the 1930s, Gaitskell and his supporters directly tied Bevanite radicalism to totalitarianism. For instance, Gaitskell claimed, “There are extraordinary parallels between Nye [Bevan] and Adolf Hitler. They are demagogues of exactly the same sort…There are minor differences but what is striking is the resemblance.” (Thus, the centrist claim that the far left and the far right are actually the same is nothing new, but simply the continuation of an old theme). Meanwhile the young Gaitskellite MP Roy Jenkins saw Labour’s 1955 defeat to the Tories, now led by Anthony Eden, as further proof that Bevanite radicalism was toxic to the majority of Britons. According to Jenkins, “the electorate is extremely Conservative-minded and we can never win except with the kind of attitude represented by the right-wing leadership.” Jenkins comments came in conjunction with Atlee’s resignation as leader following his defeat in the 1955 election.

For Labour to return to power, Jenkins believed, it would need to turn to its right flank and choose Hugh Gaitskell as leader. Jenkins’s position prevailed in the ensuing leadership contest and Gaitskell was chosen over Bevan. Despite widespread expectations that they would form the next government, Labour lost the 1959 general election to the Tories, now led by Harold McMillan (who had replaced Eden after Eden resigned in ill-health in 1957 following the humiliation of the Suez crisis).Tellingly, Gaitskell blamed his loss on Labour’s failure to depart “sufficiently from its old ‘working-class attitudes’” as the British people were ‘radical’ but not socialist and wanted a “‘left of centre radical party’ which would make social changes without being revolutionary or authoritarian.” Somehow for the centrists it is never their politics, but their party’s far left that is to blame for defeats.

In 1963 Gaitskell died suddenly at the age of 56. Led by the more left-wing Harold Wilson Labour was finally able to return to power after thirteen years when they achieved a narrow victory in the 1964 general election. Labour would form the government from 1964-1970 and again from 1974-79. After Wilson resigned in 1976 Labour was led by James Callaghan who lacked Wilson’s personal popularity. Meanwhile, the country was faced with economic crisis as inflation topped twenty-three percent in 1975. Efforts to combat this inflation strained relations between Labour and the trade unions and further exacerbated already high unemployment. Between by-election losses and defections with the breakaway Scottish Labour Party, by 1977 Callaghan was reduced to a minority government. After widespread union unrest through the winter of 1978-79, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives delivered a crushing defeat to Labour in the 1979 election.

Thatcher’s Tories represented a complete repudiation of the postwar social democratic consensus. As such, she set about to undo as much of Atlee’s welfare state as she could manage with the same determination as Bevan et al had shown when setting it up. Faced with such a comprehensive defeat Callaghan resigned and was replaced by grandee of the Labour left Michael Foot. Foot was seventy-seven years old and had first been elected to Parliament in 1945. Foot had not just been a committed Bevanite when Bevan was around for the term to mean something, but was Bevan’s biographer. The Labour right, who had been largely quiet during the electorally successful Wilson years, roared back to the fore in protest of Foot’s selection as leader. Foot, they bellowed, was a dinosaur of the past and was wholly unsuited to dealing with the present. Thatcher’s election demonstrated that the electorate had shifted significantly to the right and that the welfare state was failing. As they always do, the so-called moderates argued that Labour needed to move to the right if they were to have any hope of returning to power. As the voters had shifted right, so must Labour.

In this battle between the right and left, the right demonstrated their commitment to maintaining Labour as a big tent. A group of four prominent members of the Labour right, including our old friend Roy Jenkins, left the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party on the grounds that Labour had become infiltrated by Trotskyist factions and was too left wing. This so-called Gang of Four was eventually joined by twenty-eight Labour MPs. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberal Party before the 1983 election and received twenty-five percent of the vote—only two percent less than Labour’s 27.5 percent; however, Labour won 209 seats to the SDP-Liberal Alliance’s 23 and the bulk of the 1981 defectors lost their seats. The principle accomplishment of the SDP, thus, was ensuring that Thatcher was comfortably re-elected and able to continue to dismantle the welfare state.

Despite the obvious role played by the SDP defection, Foot’s 1983 loss was seen as a repudiation of the left-wing manifesto on which Labour had run. Strongly socialist, the manifesto had advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher taxes, more interventionist industrial policy, the abolition of the House of Lords, the nationalization of the banks, and the exit from the European Economic Community. Gerald Kaufman infamously called the 1983 manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history,” a sentiment that effectively summed up how it was received by the so-called moderates and the British establishment. Having lost the election, Foot duly resigned and the more right wing Neil Kinnock took his place. The SDP-Liberal Alliance held long enough to contest the 1987 election, but saw their support decline significantly. While the Liberals won the same number of seats as in 1983, the SDP were reduced to only five. As a result the SDP and Liberals merged in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, despite Labour’s shift to the right under Kinnock, Labour was unable to defeat Thatcher in 1987. There was one last gasp by the Foot wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1988 when a faction of left wing MPs, led by Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Kinnock’s leadership. In the ensuing leadership contest Corbyn and his supporters put up another old grandee of the Labour left, Tony Benn (first elected to Parliament in 1950). Kinnock comfortably defeated Benn’s leadership challenge as he received the support of nearly ninety percent of the vote in Labour’s semi-democratic leadership contest. Corbyn took his defeat gracefully stating that, “What we have achieved is a degree of activity and discussion of socialist values which would not have happened without the leadership contest” and that he believed would “result in stronger socialist policy in the long-run” for the Labour Party. With Kinnock’s leadership more firmly entrenched and Margaret Thatcher pushed out as Conservative leader, Labour went on to lose to John Major’s Tories in the 1992 general election. It was not until 1997, under the leadership of the Tony Blair, that Labour finally managed to defeat the Tories and end nearly two decades spent in the opposition.

For the Blairites, his 1997 election and subsequent re-elections in 2001 and 2005 proved the right flank of the party correct. It was Blair’s careful calibration of centrist policies designed to appeal to the widest swath of the electorate that led to Labour’s victories. Of course, when Blair won his first election the Tories had been in power for eighteen years. Considering that in an even moderately health democracy one party rarely holds office for such a long period of time, it seems rather more likely that rather than Blair’s political strategy being particularly transformative, the country was simply tired of the Tories and ready for an alternative. Regardless, Blair’s premiership meant that the Labour right, which had been fighting for dominance since Hugh Gaitskell was comparing the left-wing Nye Bevan to Hitler in the 1950s, had finally triumphed over its left flank.

Over the next thirteen years Labour largely governed like moderate Conservatives and continued to follow the neoliberal policies of deregulation, free trade and privatization initiated by Thatcher. When Labour lost to the Conservatives in 2010 the Blairites did not undergo any deep soul-searching about their policies; instead, they continued with the same old lines about the general conservatism of the British electorate and the need to follow a moderate path so as not to alienate swing voters. The rank-and-file membership saw things differently and after the mediocrity of Ed Miliband they chose the unabashedly left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Running on a left wing platform for the first time since 1983 (when Corbyn was first elected to Parliament), Labour refuted the expert prognosticators who saw Corbyn’s leadership and their left-wing manifesto as a repeat of Foot’s so-called suicide note. Instead, Labour achieved its largest gains since Atlee in 1945.

Far from on death’s door, Labour now sits as government-in-waiting. Tony Blair and his acolytes have responded to Corbyn’s leadership with constant opposition and direct challenges to his leadership. Going into the 2017 election, Tony Blair urged would-be Labour voters to instead vote for the Liberal Democrats or pro-European Union Conservatives rather than support Corbyn. Despite Corbyn’s electoral success the Labour right continues to challenge his leadership. Meanwhile Blair has begun to suggest a move reminiscent of Labour history, if the Labour right is unable to remove Corbyn as leader he and a collection of wealthy pro-EU donors like Richard Branson (who became a billionaire profiteering from Thatcher’s privatizations) have floated the idea of starting their own party. This despite the notable failure of the SDP the last time this was tried, despite Blair’s enormous unpopularity in the UK and despite the fact that a fiscally moderate, socially liberal, fervently pro-EU party already exists in the form of the Liberal Democrats and that platform managed only eight percent of the votes and twelve seats in the just completed election. But then, Blair’s ploy, like the SDP, is a power play than an electoral strategy. The Labour right is more interested in protecting their corporate friends and the cosmopolitan center of world finance which they have helped to transform London into at the expense of the rest of the United Kingdom than they are concerned about defeating the Tories. Indeed, the Blairites have more in common with Theresa May than with Jeremy Corbyn.

So much for a big tent.