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New Left Review I/154, November-December 1985


Raphael Samuel

The Lost World of British Communism

I. The Waning of Collectivity

British political life at the present moment seems peculiarly fissiparous. [*] Thanks are due to Sally Alexander, Miranda Chaytor and Gareth Stedman Jones for criticism and assistance in the writing of this article, to George Matthews and Betty Reid for help in the Communist Party archives, and to the editors of New Left Review for their patience and help in extracting the piece. Needless to say, I am alone responsible for its rather uncomfortable arguments. Four major parties are competing for the popular franchise (in Wales and Scotland five) where previously there were two, and there is an amoeba-like growth of minorities and tendencies within the parties themselves. With the rise of the Alliance, Labour can no longer claim monopoly rights as the Party of ‘conscience and reform’, nor Conservatives enjoy undisputed hegemony in the outer suburbs—a heartland of their electoral support ever since the rise of the modern Party system. [1] For an excellent discussion of the early stages of this hegemony, see James Cornford, ‘The Transformation of Conservatism in the Later Nineteenth Century’, Victorian Studies, VII, 1963–4, and for a memorable account of Conservatism in the London suburbs, C. Masterman, The Condition of England, London 1909. Party organization is increasingly molecular in character, with competing centres of influence rather than a clearly marked hierarchy of command. At the top there is no ‘magic circle’ from which leaders can emerge, as Mr Gaitskell did in the Labour Party of the 1950s, Lord Hume in 1963, or Mr Thorpe in 1967; while at the base, in the constituency associations, there is a far more assertive sense of autonomy and rights. The Labour Party tolerates degrees of indiscipline that would have been unthinkable in the days when Herbert Morrison swept the steps of Transport House, and its decision-making processes are almost as dispersed as those of the Liberals. [2] On the ambiguous nature of authority relations in the Liberal Party, see Arthur Cyr, Liberal Party Politics in Britain, London 1977, and V. Bogdanor, ed., Liberal Party Politics, Oxford 1983. At all points on the political compass there is a secularization of loyalties, a vertical disintegration of authority, a Balkanization of thought.

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