Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Labour is now engaged in the kind of prolonged electoral post-mortem not witnessed in Britain since Neil Kinnock dramatically failed to defeat John Major in 1992 despite encouraging poll ratings during the campaign. Much of what was said then could apply now.
As in 1992, Ed Miliband’s defeat was ‘the result of errors and failures of leadership, of political mistakes and organisational blunders that could have been avoided’. Miliband’s combination of tepid promises with warnings of cuts to come recalls the rallying call of Labour’s election chief Jack Cunningham 23 years ago: ‘Our credibility is going to be the key issue in the election. We shouldn’t promise more than we can deliver, we shouldn’t raise hopes, we shouldn’t build up people’s expectations only to dash them.’ Labour, now as then, couldn’t be accused of wildly raising hopes. But nor did it raise much enthusiasm, or support.
Back in 1992, the Labour left was feeling somewhere between crushed – after a fourth consecutive defeat at the polls – and vindicated. The relentless rightward drift under Neil Kinnock’s leadership had eroded the party’s core working-class support without any corresponding upturn in electoral fortunes. For Marqusee and Heffernan, it was time to settle scores, invoking Oscar Wilde’s dictum that ‘on occasions of this kind, it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.’
The book offers a devastating critique of Kinnock’s search for a phantom ‘respectability’, which meant courting the Tory press by lashing into the forces on the left instead of focusing on carrying the fight to Thatcher. Kinnock brought in Peter Mandelson and the pollster and former advertising executive Philip Gould, giving them unprecedented control over political messaging and strategy.
They were crucial in beginning to re-brand the party and pioneering the culture of focus groups, targeting voting demographics beyond Labour’s traditional base and tailoring both the language and the policies to better match the ‘aspirations’ of the upwardly-mobile middle class. The Labour and Britain in the 1990s study they commissioned – ‘the most comprehensive review of public opinion ever undertaken by Labour’, as Gould later described it – found that ‘individualism, consumerism, choice, security, all counted for more now than the old class-based values of collective action and provision’. Sound familiar?
The defeat of the miners in 1985 had been a critical point in shifting the balance of power inside the party and wider labour movement. It gave rise to a ‘new realism’ in the trade union leaderships, more in tune with Kinnock’s efforts to subdue industrial militancy in favour of a ‘pragmatic’ political shift to the right. Kinnock had feared the impact of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill’s more confrontational approach and held back from giving active support to a life-and-death struggle for the mining communities. Meanwhile, Labour launched a ‘prawn cocktail offensive’ to calm nerves in the City of London. As the balance of forces began to change, a whole phalanx of personally ambitious figures who had risen to prominence with the backing of rank-and-file left activists started to stampede to the right, often using crude sociological data and contrived theoretical justifications to cover their tracks.
A marriage of convenience between the old-guard right wingers and the new ‘pragmatist’ soft left opposed socialists in Liverpool and Lambeth who led the campaign against Margaret Thatcher’s onslaught on local government; joined the attacks on radical councillors, particularly in London, who promoted black and ethnic minority, women’s and LGBT rights; and condemned the campaign of non-payment in resistance to the poll tax, encouraging Labour councils to chase down unpaid bills. The party also ditched its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament and backed the first Gulf War in 1991.
This isn’t how ‘official wisdom’ has it. In that version of Labour history, Neil Kinnock is credited with ‘saving’ the party and beginning the long haul back to electability – a John the Baptist figure anticipating the messianic intervention of Tony Blair. By contrast, the authors of Defeat from the Jaws of Victory rejected the siren calls for further ‘modernisation’ and defended the commitment to common ownership in Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution. Without it, they wrote, ‘Labour is rudderless, an organisation bereft of principle or purpose.’ They argued that it would suffer more crushing electoral defeats ‘until the party rediscovers its radicalism and its popular roots’.
Yet by 1997, Clause Four had been abolished, the rightward drift begun under Kinnock had been significantly accelerated, and the party won a landslide victory. So were the authors just plain wrong?
I don’t think so. The collapse of the exchange rate mechanism and chaos of ‘Black Wednesday’ on 16 September 1992 torpedoed the Tories’ claim to economic competence, while John Major’s government, beset by internal dissent and subject to a series of sleaze scandals, had manifestly run out of road. Blair’s popularity might well have added a premium to the majority in 1997. But at what cost? Perhaps Labour is only now beginning to realise. If the outcome of the present soul-searching is yet another shift to the right, the party may not survive at all.
Drawing connections between events as disparate as the ‘social murder’ of Grenfell and recent mudslides in Sierra Leone, Remi Joseph-Salisbury points to the enduring relevance of Pan African thought for anti-racist struggle today.
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright