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New Left Review I/129, September-October 1981

David Coates

Labourism and the Transition to Socialism

In New Left Review 126 Michael Rustin analysed the constitutional changes currently taking place in the Labour Party and suggested that they contained at least the potential for the transformation of that party into a serious vehicle for socialist advance. [*] I am grateful to David Beetham, Robin Blackburn, Lionel Cliffe, Gordon Johnston, Arthur Lipow, Robert Looker, Lewis Minkin, Peter Sedgwick and Mollie Temple for their comments on an earlier draft of this article; and to Mollie Temple also for allowing me to read her unpublished paper on the Alternative Economic Strategy. Though he was very critical of the narrowness of the Labour Left’s current thinking on constitutional and political issues, the whole thrust of his argument suggested that socialists should now fight inside the Party to strengthen and widen these left-wing currents. In this article I would like to take issue not so much with the detail of his argument as with its general thrust, and press instead for even greater caution than he suggested in the face of this apparently dramatic left-wing upsurge in Labour politics. The conclusion of the argument that follows will be that we still require an independent socialist politics outside the Labour Party; and it is a conclusion that will be arrived at by a consideration, not of the question of the Party’s own internal structure and rules, but of the policies advocated within that structure by the Labour Left, and of the underlying assumptions on the character of the transition to socialism on which those policies are based. The present ‘fight’ within the Labour Party arises as much as anything from the belief, widespread on the Labour Left, that the 1979 election defeat need not have happened had the Labour Government stuck to its initial economic and political strategy. The need now is therefore not for new policies (the alternatives fought for by the Labour Left after 1975 are seen as quite adequate) but for constitutional changes that are capable of ‘tying the buggers down this time’ [1] Frank Field MP, interviewed by Mike Prior in B. Hindess, et al, Power and Politics 2, London 1981, p. 31. in order to prevent a betrayal of those policies by a Labour Government to come. The policies for which the Left are pressing have four main themes:

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David Coates, ‘Labourism and the Transition to Socialism’, NLR I/129: £3

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