The Constitution of the Labour Party has for some years been the chosen terrain for an intensifying battle between left and right, over the issues of mandatory reselection of mp’s by their constituency parties, the determination of the party’s election manifesto, and the method of electing the party leader.footnote These controversies reached a climax at the 1980 Conference, and at the subsequent Special Party Conference in January this year, whose decision on a formula for the already-agreed electoral college furnished the occasion for the resignation of a significant segment of its parliamentary leadership to form a rival Social Democratic party. The precise formula adoptedfootnote1 for the electoral college (40% to the affiliated trade unions, 30% to the parliamentary party and 30% to the constituencies) was somewhat fortuitous, and it seems likely that the issue may be reopened and the formula modified to increase the parliamentary party’s share at the next annual conference. But the electoral college formula is primarily important not for itself,footnote2 but in the context of a much wider conflict over the nature, control, and ideological orientation of the Labour Party. The constitutional issues have been taken and fought by all sides as a symbol of these deeper conflicts. For the left, these changes represent an attempt to strengthen the control of the party outside Parliament over its parliamentary leadership. For the right, they represent a threat from ‘unrepresentative activists’ to undermine the conventions of British parliamentary government. For the trade unions they probably have the more limited aim of increasing the union’s influence over Labour Governments’ economic policies, which were turned against union interests particularly in the last years of the 1974–79 Labour Government.

The purpose of this article is to clarify these conflicts, and the different latent conceptions of political parties that underlie them. The issues are important ones. For many on the left, the parliamentarist limitations of the Labour Party have long been a subject for criticism. This is now all the more severe given the failure of the last Labour Government, not least to achieve the minimal aim of retaining office, and the harsh Thatcherite programmes to which it has therefore opened the way. There has been, since the election, some significant move to the left in the Labour Party, reflected in constitutional and in policy changes, and in the election to the leadership of Michael Foot, the first leader since the war to have been in conviction and political formation a committed member of the radical and Labour left. If significant changes in the party are to be achieved, now is the time when their purposes should be clarified. Yet while there has been much discussion of the party constitution, there has been little enquiry into the different theoretical conceptions which underlie present disagreements, or into ‘sociological’ problems of what parties actually do, or should do, in a capitalist society such as this. These are the deficiencies in the debate which this article will attempt to repair.

Reference will also be made to a wider discussion among Marxists, especially in the European Communist movement, which has had to approach the problem of party organization from the opposite direction, from concern about its excessive power rather than its debility. Whereas the Labour left in Britain has wanted to strengthen the party organization, socialist critics of Communist Party organization in Eastern Europe, such as Bahrofootnote3 and Medvedev,footnote4 have been pre-occupied with the excessive bureaucratic privileges and power of their party apparatuses. This article attempts to relate these two perspectives, and seeks to explore whether means can be found of extending the importance of party as a modality of power in society, while yet avoiding the enormous costs of one party systems under ‘actually existing socialisms’.

Conflicts over the nature and control of the Labour Party have a long history, and the apparent absurdity of a possibly major split being occasioned by the innocuous institution of an electoral college is only intelligible in this context. The origins of this argument, as with so much else in the contemporary state of the Labour Party, lie in the ‘revisionist’ attempts to transform the party in the late 1950’s. For twenty years before that, the Labour Party’s tripartite structure of constituency parties, unions, and parliamentary party, had been in a condition of relatively stable equilibrium. While a predominantly right wing leadership prevailed in both unions and in Parliament, potential constitutional conflicts between the institutional sectors of the party could be easily nullified. The Bevanite left, with roots chiefly in the constituency parties, was in a permanent minority position at Conference and in the parliamentary party, and its members were kept in line by stringent party discipline. During this period, in which there was the memory of recent relative success through the war-time Coalition and the 1945 Labour Government, the Labour Party defined itself as the party of the working class, though in an essentially populist way. Its majoritarian, collectivist conception of itself was rarely put under strain by internal conflict. The powers of decision-making by the Party Conference, and of legitimate leadership by the National Executive Committee, were used to enforce essentially right-wing positions. But with the election defeats of the years of ‘affluence’, culminating in the 1959 election, revisionist Labour politicians, led intellectually by Crosland and politically by Gaitskell, called in question the appropriateness of a working class identification for the Labour Party in what (they argued) was becoming an increasingly classless, or at least pluralist, society. Through revisionist attempts to change the party’s commitment to public ownership (the Clause 4 debates) and through a vigorous right-wing response to the unilateralist conference victory of 1960, constitutional relations between activists, unions and parliamentary party were brought into question. Gaitskell defied and overthrew the unilateralist conference decision, and though in doing so he restored the constitutional legitimacy of his position by realigning the Conference with it, he had shown that the parliamentary leadership had a substantial autonomy and could in no way be regarded as automatically subject to the will of the party outside. Relations with the trade unions became problematic when the unions inflicted defeat on the Clause 4 revisions, as much for traditionalist as for particularly ‘left’ reasons. While continuing to depend on the trade unions for support, Crosland and Gaitskell acquired a critical and negative view of them which has remained an important strand of revisionist thinking.

Relationships between these different institutional sectors of the party appeared to be patched up by the election to the leadership of Harold Wilson in 1963, and by his skilful transmutation of ideological differences into consensual technological radicalism in the run-up to the 1964 election. The subsequent election of Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon to the leaderships of the Transport Workers and Engineering Workers unions was to give a left-of-centre inflection to trade union as well as parliamentary leaderships (in Jones’s case continuing the orientation set by Cousins) and this alliance seemed a new basis for operating the tripartite constitution. In opposition, and in the early years of Labour Governments before disillusion set in, this ‘leftish’ alliance could and did work. Policy compromises on paper were relatively easy to make, and all sides had a powerful electoral interest in the appearance of unity. But the experience of office, both in 1964 and 1974, was a very different matter, once governments were pushed to the right. During both governments the previously left-of-centre Wilson set his constitutional prerogatives as Prime Minister above any other claims on him, and asserted the powers of Government over the claims of party. ‘The government must govern’, he proclaimed and, this turned out to signify not the independence of government vis-a-vis the International Monetary Fund or the United States, but vis-a-vis the trade unions and the Labour Party Conference. As Lewis Minkin has described in his admirable study,footnote5 Conference repeatedly voted against Labour Governments in the sixties and seventies, and its votes were virtually ignored. To greater effect, perhaps, these governments reached breaking-point in their relations with the trade union movement, the 1964–70 government over In Place of Strife in 1969, and the 1974–79 government over the suicidally ill-judged 5% pay norm of 1978–9 and the consequent ‘winter of discontent’. It is from different ‘readings’ of these failures—in electoral and other terms—that the current constitutional debates have sprung. For all the contestants in this dispute, there is the sense that the old options and compromises have been explored to their limits, and that some renewal of the structure is needed.

Two other more sociological factors need to be indicated to place in context these debates. These are changes in modes of political activity acting upon the old forms of the party constitution. On the revisionist side, the development of mass communications, especially television, has accentuated the importance and autonomy of political leaderships over their actual followings. What is in effect political marketing, via public opinion polls and television image, has become a principal instrument of political power, displacing the apparent importance of corporate attachment to unions or party membership—these may even appear to be liabilities. It is now at least possible to conceive that a a group of highly visible parliamentary leaders like the so-called ‘Gang of Three’ (Shirley Williams, William Rogers, David Owen) could appeal to the voters over the heads of the mass organizations of the labour movement, and win as much support as the official party. This would not have been a conceivable option for dissidents before Gaitskell, and seems never to have been seriously considered until now. The dependence, therefore, of the leadership of those days on the support and votes of unions and constituency parties was much greater. On the left, a younger generation of educated activists has come into the Labour Party, and also into white collar and public sector unions, and has a more demanding and ‘participatory’ approach to party affairs. The growth of pressure group politics, the radicalization resulting from increased education, especially higher education, and the development of a radical and Marxist sub-culture, have had some effect on the Labour Party itself, by no means only through the sectarian activity to which these various changes are usually reduced by their opponents.

So at both ends of the ideological spectrum, there are social tendencies making for polarization. Not only is there this pressure from both ends, so to speak, but also a common awareness of the general decline recently experienced by the Labour Party, in its vote and its membership. A reappraisal and restructuring of the Party therefore seems desirable to all sides, though they agree on nothing else. The experience of the unions in the last months of the 1974–9 Labour Government, and their justified sense of betrayal by it, the countervailing reaction to the left which the Thatcher experiment is naturally bringing about, and the increasing political demands by activists, have all brought a substantial pressure from the left. Changes in the constitution have been one important means of giving effect to this, though one open to much criticism as being unduly internal and unrelated to more important programmatic issues. One might estimate that these pressures now have only a limited and modest potential, and that neither the trade unions nor the constituency parties have a capacity to push the party further to the left prior to the next election.footnote6 Whereas a rearguard action by the right would probably succeed in containing the changes made, in fact a much more radical right-wing response has been given to them, initiating major departures, of a liberal kind, from the previous forms of British Labourism. One should not ignore the potential for change contained in the left-wing and trade union initiatives. Nevertheless, the most salient feature of the threatened split is not that it is a rational response on the Right to the imposition of a new form of Labour Party by the Left. It would be more true to say that a reassertion of the historic basis of the Labour Party, with some leftward inflection, is no longer acceptable to sections of the middle-class Right, and a break to a less socialist and less class-based form of social democracy is therefore being attempted.