Labour’s defeat in the General Election offers a profound challenge to the Party. It clearly calls for a period of sober reflection in which a serious analysis of the results can be made. We must forge new links with those too often thought of as natural Labour supporters. We must develop a socialist response to the problems of those who voted against Margaret Thatcher yet were attracted to the sdp/Liberal Alliance rather than to the Labour Party. We will also have to examine why it was that many who were angry about unemployment still did not accept that we had an effective strategy for overcoming it. There will be those on the Right predisposed to argue that the Left must be blamed for the defeat. They will argue that the policies and constitutional changes proposed by the Left were the source of our unpopularity and should therefore be thrown out as soon as possible. The Left will be entitled to reply that even the best policies do not guarantee instant success; they have to be effectively and convincingly advocated. The Party Manifesto embodied some major policy advances even if some leading spokesmen were not fully convinced of this. The Party’s programme and constitution will certainly need to be improved in the light of experience, but attempts to reverse its socialist objectives, weaken its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, or challenge the move towards democratic internal procedures will have to be strongly resisted. Indeed if the Party is to rise to the challenge of this defeat it must become a more coherent force for socialist change and a more convincing instrument for meeting the aspirations of working people. The callous workings of the capitalist system and the appalling threat of the nuclear arms race make any dilution of our programme an act of folly and irresponsibility. It would deprive the electorate of real choice at a time when an alternative is more urgently needed than ever before.

Labour may have been badly defeated but it continues to embody the best hopes and energies of working people; indeed, as I will suggest below, its major problem is that the survival of cumbersome and bureaucratic procedures still inhibit the Party from becoming a dynamic popular force. In this article I would like first to reply to those critics of the Party who consider that it will always compromise socialist objectives, or that the struggle to make it a more effective and democratic instrument of socialist advance is a lost cause. The results of the election confront the Party with grave problems but they offer no comfort at all to the reduced groups of socialists who have remained outside it. The only way to halt the menacing shift to the right in British politics is to press through the renewal of the Labour Party. The Left will have to learn to build on its successes and learn from its mistakes. The Constituency Labour Parties are a more lively force today than they were ten years ago and the level of membership has increased steadily over recent years, recruiting from new layers of the community. The Party’s new journal, The New Socialist, has been a great success and reaches an audience outside the Party. Many supporters of cnd, of the womens’ movement and of other radical causes look to Labour for a positive response to their demands. In London, Sheffield and elsewhere Labour local government has displayed a new vitality and imaginativeness. All this may seem modest compared with the magnitude of the election defeat but it could provide pointers to recovery and future success. And it can scarcely be supposed that those who remain outside the Party have a more realistic prospect to offer us. Once I have replied to our critics on the Left I will advance some ideas on practical steps that could be taken to improve the working of the Party.

In his article ‘The Limits of the Labour Left’ (nlr 129), David Coates says, ‘It is clearly better . . . for the Labour Party to be committed to unilateral disarmament than to the Bomb, to favour workers’ control over one-man management, . . . and to support a more rather than less radical version of the Alternative Economic Strategy. Even when it is recognized that the revolutionary left have played an important role in shaping extra-parliamentary movements that have initiated many of their demands, it still has to be conceded that someone has to push them inside the Party.’

Precisely. The policy and organizational changes inside the Labour Party did not come about by accident. There were, it is true, powerful political motives for the change—i.e., the experiences of the Wilson and Callaghan governments as well as the earlier Gaitskell-versus-Bevanite controversy—but there also had to be people within the Party who were arguing and organizing for such changes. These people are the socialist left within the Party, made of a diversity of groups and individuals including the Tribunites, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, Independent Labour Publications, the Militant Tendency and others. Had these left-wingers not been in the Party—that is, had they followed the advice of David Coates, Paul Foot, Raymond Williams, etc.—then the recent upsurge of socialist concepts in the Labour Party could not have reached the stage it has, and, more than likely, the anti-socialist ‘fifth column’ (the sdp’s Gang of Four) would still be in the party, influencing, manipulating, and to some extent controlling it, as well as trying to ensure that socialist policies were muted if not totally excluded.

Thus in spite of his recognition that ‘someone had to push them [from] inside the party’, Coates is reluctant to draw the logical conclusion and urge all socialists to join the Labour Party. Instead he recommends ‘unity campaigns’. This is an old and familiar argument. It was heard especially in the late 1930s when such a unity initiative involved the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist League (a left grouping inside the Labour Party). Indeed over the years the Communist Party has consistently argued for such campaigns, even during the 1939–40 period when their opposition to ‘imperialist war’ isolated them from most of the labour movement. As elusive as such ‘unity’ campaigns may have been in those days, it is today—when the left outside the Party is even smaller—quite an illusory strategy. As attempts on the part of certain ‘revolutionary’ socialists to remain pure and untainted by reality, such efforts are time-consuming and, at the end of the day, show little for the work involved.

If the Labour Party has been moved significantly to the left it is not because of external pressure and appeals to ‘unity’, but rather because many of those originally radicalized in the movements and student revolts of the 1960s, who for a time had sustained the activities of small revolutionary groups, had tired of their constant ‘head banging’ and decided to play their part in the mass party of the workers: the Labour Party. By doing so they have injected fresh blood into the Party—intellectually and practically—and have been partly instrumental in the changes within it. Political parties change or die and the Labour Party has certainly not been an exception to that rule.

But before assessing the present situation in the Party and outlining future changes that are worth striving for, it is important to look at some aspects of the Party’s past history which bear on current problems. The Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Party, was exclusively made up of affiliated organizations. The agenda of the Labour Representation Conference held in London on Tuesday, 27 February 1900 had eight items on it, item 3 being ‘Constitution of Committee’. It was proposed that the Executive Committee should consist of twelve representatives of the trade unions, ten from the Co-operative Societies (providing they were represented at the conference), two from the Fabian Society, two from the Independent Labour Party and two from the Marxist Social Democratic Federation—all elected by their respective organizations. With some modifications—the English Co-ops were not included—this remained the organization of the Party until the new constitution of 1918. In 1900 affiliations were made up of 353,070 trade unionists, 13,000 members of the ilp, 9,000 of sdf and 861 Fabians. By the 1902 Conference the sdf had disaffiliated, but the total affiliated membership had risen to 469,311. Labour soon gained representation in Parliament but still had no individual membership.