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.footnote 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’footnote1 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:

The majority of these policies are now enshrined in resolutions successfully carried at recent Labour Party conferences and in documents published by the nec.footnote2 They have been publicly advocated by leading figures on the Left of the Party, and in a more muted form they constitute the core of the alternative policy for economic expansion pressed on the Thatcher Government by the tuc.footnote3 Moreover this ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ (aes) has attracted a wide range of more critical support on the fringes of the Labour Party too, especially in the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party (ilp) and the London Conference of Socialist Economists (cse) group, all of whom have published commentaries on, and arguments for, such a strategy.footnote4 And wherever those policies have been advocated in public debate inside the Labour Party they have attracted the label of ‘socialist’. ‘Socialist planning’ is how they were described in Composite 19 at the 1980 Party conference, a reassertion, in Moss Evans’s words, of Clause 4 socialism in the 1980s.footnote5

Yet conference rhetoric should not be allowed to obscure the degree of disagreement within the labour movement on both the detail and the status of the policies proposed. The disagreements on matters of detail have been adequately surveyed elsewhere,footnote6 but what should also be noted is the very different ways in which the policy’s overall impact is presented. In the hands of the tuc, for example, and according to Right and Centre Labour mps, the alternative is presented as a plan for growth, a way of ending the stagnation and dwindling competitiveness of British manufacturing industry.footnote7 Yet to many on the Labour Left, the aes is more than that. It is a socialist programme as well as a solution to unemployment and stagnation, offered on the explicit premise that socialism is the only proper answer to the crisis of British manufacturing industry. As Michael Meacher put it, ‘for once the Left is pushing a policy which is a practical alternative to what we have—one which also offers elements of socialism, and so the Left can then say to its supporters “it’s socialist” and to the country at large “it’s going to give you growth and expansion”.’footnote8 Of course many on the Labour Left are aware that the aes is only the beginning of a process of socialist transformation,footnote9 and this, paradoxically, brings them close to the views of other supporters outside the Party who are equally adamant that whatever the aes is, it is not a socialist programme. Here the nuances of presentation become quite sophisticated and delicate, and the reasons for supporting the strategy vary. Bob Rowthorn for one does not believe that the next Labour Government will pursue a radical aes. For him the strategy is important instead as a body of ideas that by its very existence gives the lie to the Thatcher claim that there is no alternative, and in so doing both bolsters working-class self-confidence and establishes the credibility of the Left in ever wider circles.footnote10 And Sam Aaronovitch’s presentation of the aes emphasizes this last feature, its capacity ‘to gain the support of millions who do not think of themselves as socialists’ but who in time might ‘come to recognise the need for a more radical and socialist transformation’.footnote11 The very fact that it is a ‘common programme’, and not a socialist one, is then an important element of its appeal for him.

Not so the London cse group, writing in conjunction with the Labour Co-ordinating Committee: they go back to Michael Meacher’s notion of the programme as doing two things at once. For them, the aes is ‘a progressive and transitional socialist strategy’, a way of mobilizing the working class around a set of important and immediate demands at the same time as ‘developing the economy in a socialist direction’.footnote12 They argue that the strategy constitutes a framework within which, at one and the same time, ‘we can provide jobs, higher living standards and improved public services and initiate a transition towards socialism.footnote13 According to them, the aes, if properly implemented, is attractive because it aims ‘to impose greater working class political control on each of the forms of capital’,footnote14 and though its policies ‘will not create socialism’ they are nonetheless ‘progressive and transitional in the sense that they transform the dynamic of the economy introducing widespread democratisation and substituting social for market forms of control’.footnote15 The claim here is that the aes is not a reformist programme aimed at stabilizing capitalism, but a progressive challenge to it, one that links immediate issues and longer-term questions of socialist transformation by constantly seeking to ‘anticipate, challenge and progressively dismantle . . . the constraints imposed by the existing structure of economic relations . . . and substitute new forms of control’.footnote16

The London cse group are not alone in this view of the aes. Purdy and Prior present it in a very similar fashion as a way out of the ghetto of impotent revolutionary socialist politics that proceeds by establishing elements of a socialist society within a dominant capitalism.footnote17 And Geoff Hodgson has emphasized the role of the aes as a mobilizer of a mass socialist movement. His is a particularly finely balanced and idiosyncratic presentation, for he is rightly pessimistic about the Tribunite Left’s view of the strategy. If their interpretation prevails, he argues, the aes ‘will go the way of all reformist strategies: to failure, oblivion or bloody defeat’. But far from that discrediting the whole enterprise in his eyes, Geoff Hodgson still wants us to support the aes as a vital ‘means by which revolutionary socialists can reach the ear of literally thousands of workers and inject important ideas of their own’, and as a way of galvanizing ‘the conscious and organized mass socialist movement that (will be) a product of the struggle for that strategy’. According to him, it is this which gives the aes ‘a revolutionary purpose, as a politicising and mobilising agent’.footnote18

So we are told that the aes is to be supported on a multiplicity of potentially conflicting grounds: as a cure for economic decline, as a socialist programme, as the start of a struggle for socialism, as a programme that is democratic and radical without being socialist, as a mobilizer of broad support for the socialist idea, as a way of tipping the resolution of the economic crisis in favour of the working class and against capital, as a way of establishing enclaves of socialist production and working-class power in a capitalist society, or as a way of generating a revolutionary socialist mass movement. But for whatever reason, we are told, the aes has to be supported and the Left in the Labour Party sustained. I am not so sure.

One reason for suspecting that the fight for the aes inside the Labour Party now is less significant than its protagonists would claim is that, import controls apart, we have been here at least once before. By 1973 the Labour Party was committed, as both its election manifestoes in 1974 confirmed, to an earlier version of the aes: to an extension of public ownership, to a planning agreements system, to industrial democracy, to more social expenditure and a wealth tax, to renegotiating the terms of entry to the eec, and, overall, to the achievement of a ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’. Yet after six months of heady reformism in 1974, the Labour Government retreated rapidly from this early radicalism. Opposition within the Labour Cabinet whittled down the original draft of Tony Benn’s White Paper, The Regeneration of British Industry, and Benn was moved out of the Industry Department after the eec referendum. From the very beginning, the Labour Cabinet came under heavy pressure from the press and the civil service to curb the ‘excesses of Bennery’, from the Treasury to introduce a statutory incomes policy, and from the Confederation of British Industry (cbi) to abandon industrial democracy—and under this pressure Labour Ministers made significant concessions on all these issues. In addition, heavy speculation against the pound, rapidly rising inflation and serious balance of payments deficits drove the Labour Government to the imf, from which it emerged committed to the maintenance of tight monetary targets and the pursuit of conventional deflationary policies. And the result, as we all know, was not a move to socialism, or even to economic growth, but rather a redistribution of power and wealth away from the working class, an intensification of the competitive weakness of British capitalism, and the return of the most right-wing Conservative Government since the war. So if that is what happened on the last occasion that the aes was tried, by a Labour Cabinet whose political composition was not significantly different from any which we are likely to see in the immediate future—then we have the right, even the duty, to ask how the Labour Left intend to avoid a repetition of that debacle in a Labour Government to come, especially when, as Tribunite mps are only too willing to admit, the degree of economic desolation and social misery that they will inherit from the outgoing Conservative Government will make the task of that Labour Government even more difficult than it was in 1974.footnote19