How left was the Labour Party?

When defining how ‘left’ the Labour Party was in the 1970s, acknowledging that there was a left-wing  and a right-wing movement in the party, as well as smaller divided movements who largely pursued their own agendas, is arguably integral to understanding and identifying their policies in the decade.

The Labour Left advocated for nationalisation of industry, significant redistribution of wealth and supported policies which opposed Britain becoming part of the European Economic Community (the EEC).  The Labour Left had a strong socialist tendency, which Coates suggests is due to the swing of the trade unions to the left in 1967, and is indicated by documents like the NEC’s 1976 programme. On the other end of the scale was what can be described as the Labour Right who believed in an economy comprised of public and private sectors that had varied approaches to redistribution and tended to be more favourable to international investment and Britain’s participation in an international market. Britain joining the EEC under Heath and the Conservatives in January 1973 is one example of the divided nature of the Labour Party, although Labour being elected in 1974 suggests that the Party had a manifesto which appealed to both its Left and Right.

From 1974 to 1979, during the Labour administrations led by Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, Dennis Healey was Chancellor of the Exchequer. In Healey’s own account, he describes the difficult economy he inherited from the Conservatives – with an enormous balance of payments deficit and the Trade Unions not holding up their end of the Social Contract- and the pay policies he implemented to try and contend with these policies. Although Labour can arguably be seen as increasingly monetarist in this period, with the government implementing measures to control inflation and the economy, and thus moving away from the Leftist narrative, their social policies still beg the question as to whether the party was truly moving away from the Left.

By 1977, as summarized by Donoghue, a general feeling existed that ‘the IMF agreement formally entrenched monetarism in labour’s economy’, and the party left had become deeply disillusioned with the cabinet. As highlighted by Cobham, Wickham-Jones and Artis, such disillusionment was also in part due to Callaghan’s rejection of the Alternative Economic Strategy, just a few days prior to to accepting the IMF loan, which would have, according to Benn, brought the unions more onto the side of Labour. Furthermore, the cabinet had also been  ‘moving away from’ the left’s ‘ideal type’ industrial strategy since 1975. Despite this, such centre-ward shifts in economic and industrial policy should not necessarily be concluded as a ‘betrayal of socialism’. Exploring this, we must understand that in February 1974, although Wilson had returned to power, the newly elected Labour government were 17 seats short of a majority, therefore moving in line with Trade Union Demands was essential in sustaining left-wing support.  Once the government had secured a marginal majority by October 1974, slightly more room for manoeuvre existed. Moreover, the breaking and acknowledgement of financial crisis on both a national and international level in June/ July 1975 demanded deflationary measures be taken. Crisis statements were issued by Healey at this time, and further cuts were announced going into 1976. Even though such decisions had resulted in the falling of inflation, sterling experienced rapid decline in March and on 16th March 1976, Harold Wilson resigned from office. Callaghan, Wilson’s successor, was quick to implement further cuts in public expenditure, and in December it was revealed that Britain would receive a hefty loan of  $3.9 billion from the IMF. This, of course demanded compliance with an IMF agreement, and once again Labour’s economic strategy was constrained beyond socialist preference.

It is useful to explore this perceived rightward shift by those on the left, Callaghan’s speeches at Labour’s annual conference in both 1976 and 1977. In 1976,  whilst Callaghan stated that ‘the cosy world we were told would go on forever, where full employment would be guaran­teed by a stroke of the Chancellor’s pen’, he also stated that ‘distribution of wealth’ remained at the core of Labour’s social policy. Additionally, Callaghan stressed that ‘freedom’ from ‘hatred and discrimination’, and ‘the position of young people’ remained central to Labour’s agenda.  Moreover, as the domestic economic situation stabilised into 1977, Callaghan’s rhetoric can be perceived as inherently socialist, emphasising the importance of the ‘Social Security Act’, and stated that ‘we [Labour] cannot compromise’ in ensuring that ‘every citizen in this country, irrespective of race or creed, enjoys equality of opportunity and equality of protec­tion under the law’ . This taken into account, we may put forward that the labour left became ‘disillusioned’ with the government primarily , not necessarily due to a right-wing shift in ideology, overall policy and agenda, but due to economic factors that were largely out of the Labour government’s control.

Therefore, debates surrounding how characteristically ‘left’ the likes of the Labour Party leadership was during their reign in the 1970s are apparent and ongoing. What is rarely contested, however, is that there was a significantly leftist faction within the party in these years, albeit a vocal minority. Such was epitomised in the actions and opinions of the most vocal comrade within this faction: Tony Benn. Although initially a moderate member of the Party, by 1974 Benn was one of Labour’s leading supporters for outright socialist transformation of society. On Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, Benn recorded in his diary the loss of a ‘great’ leader, who had been committed to the Socialist cause.  Such radically socialist views are reflected in the demands of Labour’s Programme for Reform 1973, from which the contents of the subsequent manifesto were supposed to be drawn. It was framed by Benn, among a few others. One of the most overtly socialist claims within the document was a call ‘to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of the working people’, a demand which resonates with a somewhat Marxist call to arms. Benn was thus clearly not holding back; the Programme was the socialist answer to the catastrophic economic decline that Britain had faced in recent months, which Benn believed to be in large part caused by failures in Conservative economic policy.

As Harold Wilson, then Labour Party leader, was skeptical of the more radical elements of the document, and their likelihood of gaining public-wide approval, much of the Programme was proscribed from the official Labour Party manifesto, as produced for the February 1974 election. But this was not the end for the Programme. Following the dramatic depreciation of the pound sterling in 1976, Benn and the the leftist faction re-surfaced with support for elements of the document which they believed would fix the economic crisis. This became known as the Alternative Economic Strategy. Benn and the Strategy’s other formulators believed the only way to combat economic decline was to expand public ownership immensely: the largest 25 companies were to be nationalised first. Import controls were also recommended, as a means to protect and vitalise key British industries (thereby implicating capitalist tendencies for global multi-national corporatism to be the reason for British decline).

When Benn proposed the Strategy in November 1976 to the Cabinet, it was almost immediately rejected: if Britain were to implement insular, socialist policies as the Strategy recommended, the likelihood of foreign retaliation in the form of their own import controls was high. This would, ultimately, hurt British export levels in turn.

As a result, it is clear that while the projects and proposals of the Labour Party’s leftist faction failed to be realised, they were very much present. To claim, as some do, that the Labour Party of the 1970s was plagued with a rightist stance, often overshadows the fact that there was also a very firm leftist faction within its membership.

The more left leaning and ‘socialist’ approach to Europe in the 1970’s has been highlighted in more contemporary discussions around Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to convincingly back the remain campaign. In a recent article in the Independent newspaper, Independent Party leader Chuka Umunna argues Corbyn to be a ‘Brexiteer’ at heart. He describes how ‘I cannot think of any labour leader in my lifetime who would not instinctively said “Remain”’. Having been born towards the end of the 70’s this is convincing, however, this idea of leftist labour against Europe is one borne out of the internal conflict within the Party during the debate around entry to the EEC and the Common Market.

The official rhetoric of the Labour Party towards Europe was detailed in Harold Wilson’s manifesto of 1975 where he describes Britain as a ‘European Nation, and a Labour Britain would always would always seek a wider cooperation between European peoples.’ The only concession here is an opposition of ‘membership of the European Communities on the terms negotiated by the conservative government.’ This stance is in direct contrast to a key faction within the party. Amongst a significant number of MP’s was a frustration that the labour governments between 1964 and 1970 had failed to implement the socialist programme that they had been elected to deliver and resulted in renewed calls for this more socialist approach. This approach directly contrasted with membership with in the EEC with a belief that Europe was a way to divert the need for a more socialist society away from the general public. The hope was that those in socialist camp could therefore use Europe to there ends, as a banner under which a legitimate faction could emerge within the party to create an anti-European alternative which was essentially socialist in its aims.

As Richard Davis suggests in the French Journal of English Studies, ‘Europe was, therefore, a political football not only between the two parties but, equally importantly, in the ideological battle for dominance inside the Labour party.’

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