The defeat of Labour in the 1983 General Election has clearly entered into folklore for many in the party, and simplistic, mono-causal explanations are common. It is an interesting phenomenon, and not one confined to the Labour Party, that historical events of great complexity are shoehorned into the confines of contemporary, factional disputes.
But let us look at the argument advanced by many Progress supporters, and others on the centre right of the party, that we need to win elections from the centre ground, and then move the centre ground once in office.
Firstly, the whole concept of a “centre ground” implies a managerial approach to government where there is an incremental gradation between left and right. There can be no stable “centre ground” when two incompatible political or economic theories are being contested.
Much is said of the way that both Attlee and Thatcher created a paradigm shift that resulted in a new political consensus. However, those political sea-changes were a result of both changes in the actually existing political-economy, and the consequence of shifting intellectual debate outside of the small world of electoral politics, and neither Attlee nor Thatcher won from the centre ground.
It is surely incontrovertible that the greatest Labour government was that resulting from Clement Attlee’s general election victory of 1945. But the prelude to 1945 was the long recovery from the melt down of the second Labour government in 1931.
Those of us who grew up in traditional Labour supporting families in the 1960s and 1970s will have been immersed in the folkloric betrayal by MacDonald and Snowden in 1931. In the face of the Great Depression they proposed cutting unemployment benefit and reducing public sector wages.
Neither of them were bad men, nor were they on the political right. MacDonald was a former Marxist who had opposed the First World War. Snowden, who had been an inspiring speaker about the future socialist utopia, afterwards became a Keynesian and abandoned his support for MacDonald. They did however consider themselves at the time to be prisoners of political moderation and economic orthodoxy. The Labour Party’s own economic theory in the 1920s had been based upon an underconsumptionist model that failed to account for the 1929 crash, and they were under massive political and establishment pressure to maintain a balanced budget to stay on the gold standard. This was a position of such overwhelming orthodoxy, and with such massive public support, that for the Labour government to defy the expectation would put themselves outside the pale of establishment opinion.
The opponents of MacDonald and Snowden in 1931 were hardly firebrand impossibilists. JR Clynes and Arthur Henderson were both former leaders of the Labour Party. Clynes was a former senior official in the GMWU (now GMB), and Henderson an official of the Iron Founders Union, who advocated social partnership. They had the impeccable “moderate” credentials: both had supported Britain’s involvement in the First World War, and Clynes as Home Secretary had refused permission for Leon Trotsky to enter the UK.
However, they did know the difference between right and wrong. They did know that a Labour Party that aspired to build a fairer and more equal society had to side with the victims of an unjust and exploitative economic system, and not simply accept the self-serving economic orthodoxy of the rich. Their instinctive solidarity with the poor was informed by their own personal experience. They had become MPs not as part of a career plan, but because they had arisen out of the working class as able fighters for their fellow workers, their neighbours, families and communities.
The 1930s were difficult times for the Labour Party, and Labour were punished in the 1931 General Election, before recovering in 1935. However, had it not been for the strength and courage of the MPs, and their trade union backers, who refused to vote for cuts to unemployment benefit in 1931, then the Labour Party would have ceased to exist.
In circumstances far more difficult than today, the Labour Party carried out a moral and intellectual rearmament during the 1930s, embedding itself in communities as the centre of opposition to ruthless Conservatism, and developing practical but radical policies that would transform Britain. It was this process which meant that Labour was ready to return to government in 1940 and to win an outright election victory in 1945.
I hadn’t seen Ann Pettifor’s article on a similar theme when I wrote this. You can see Ann’s article here