Whatever does it take?

The sooner the left gives up on Labour, the sooner it can begin to organise for real change, says John Nicholson

October 2, 2007
5 min read

I agree entirely with Liz Davies. When Blair became Labour leader and abolished Clause 4 of the party constitution, he not only scrapped the last remaining vestige of socialism to which the party had aspired, but also removed any democratic means of challenging this from within. As Liz says, what can any remaining Labour left-winger possibly achieve by staying in the party?

It isn’t just a question of ‘Whatever happened to the labour left?’ but (admittedly less snappy) ‘Whatever can anyone who was once in the labour left make happen?’

This is because there are thousands of comrades who have left Labour since Kinnock/ Smith and then Blair/Brown turned the party into its current Christian Democrat form – a safe pair of hands for big business. The question of whether (or when) to leave Labour has in fact dogged the left ever since its formation. I recently came across a Labour Briefing pamphlet from 1991 – ‘Why socialists should stay in the labour party’ – and recognised some of the same arguments as posed today.

I was then arguing to ‘stay and fight’ – advocating neither leaving nor burying our heads in the sand (it makes you go blind but it doesn’t stop the right wing). A trade union comrade was arguing that we should leave – all together – after the next election (1992); either because we would have lost, and right wing election policies would have been shown to be counter-productive, or because we would have won, and the leadership would rapidly desert its alleged commitment to peace, public ownership and redistribution of wealth. (He was right, of course.)

Since then the fact is that people have left, wave after wave, and have found there is still life outside the party. And while the SWP has continued to make a pitch to the ‘Labour left’ for as long as I can remember, the truth is that it almost doesn’t exist any more. There is a whole generation of younger politically active people who have had the good fortune never to have been forced to experience life within Labour. Better by far to ask: whatever is happening to those who never joined the ‘Labour left’?

I don’t for one moment wish to be unkind to the few (very few) comrades who have remained as left Labour elected representatives – and who have done what good they could. But, as Neil Gerrard rightly says, these Campaign Group members would have had more problems getting selected today as compared to 15-25 years ago.

It would be better to define the various strata of ‘Labour left’ more accurately. I can think of at least six layers, past and present:

1. Those MPs who have survived as individual campaigners and used their platform (up to a point);

2. Members of local Labour parties, often in areas without representatives in parliament, who have managed to keep their ‘Old Labour’ activity going with limited interference from on high;

3. Trade union activists who have sought office in their unions (for whom Labour membership has given respectability?);

4. Revolutionary organisations who have dug in so deep that they have forgotten why they were digging (or found they enjoyed the fruits of office?);

5. Those who stayed until Blair abolished Clause 4; and

6. Those who stayed until Blair went to war (or till he next went to war …).

In addition, there are all those who left, or just didn’t renew membership, for one or more ‘single issue’ commitment that New Labour has single-mindedly ditched. The only exception, I suspect, has been an influx of members as a result of the legislation giving lesbian and gay equality – but then, having won this important issue, being gay doesn’t require you to be, or to stay, on the left.

Meanwhile, the ex-Labour left may not have gained the same media publicity once departed that we did while undergoing the processes of being vilified, witch-hunted, and expelled. But we have been repeatedly responsible for setting up and maintaining campaigns – on the streets – against war(s), against deportations, against privatisation, against the fascists. And we have not stopped trying to bring the extra-parliamentary, extra-Labour left together in attempts to overcome the sectarianism that has also dogged the left in this country for the last century or more.

Now it may be unkindly asked ‘Whatever happened to the Campaign for Socialism, Labour Party Socialists, the Campaign Group Supporters Network … or indeed the Socialist Alliance?’ (Was ‘Respect’ the answer?) People staying in Labour may say ‘there is no alternative’ to Brown (surely not without irony?). Could they have more influence on the inside than by risking the dissipated existence of the dis-organised left – seemingly perpetually fated to re-live the Life of Brian?

There is no definitive answer to this. It’s one of those half-full/half-empty discussions that have taken place between optimists and pessimists, United and City fans, throughout history. I can only say that while there is no possibility of individuals in Labour changing it back to what it was (and it was never socialist anyway), there is always going to be room for people to join in the struggle for socialism in the wider movements outside.

The more that the ex-Labour left – of each and every generation – can learn to work together, in practical action for peace and public ownership and against racism and ecological disaster, the more easily we will all be part of ‘whatever’ it takes to make change ‘happen’.

John Nicholson is the former Labour deputy leader of Manchester City Council

Join the debate


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant