What Does Labour Have to Lose From a Left Turn?

by James Kelly

Why the British Labour Party abandoned its traditional socialist policies, and the lessons that can be applied to the party’s current predicament.

When the British Labour Party abandoned much of its socialist ideology in the 1990s, it did so for one reason – the pursuit of popularity, and by extension the pursuit of power. It had been in opposition for almost two decades, lost four general elections in a row, and the question that was being posed more and more volubly was “what”s the point of having the most wonderful policies in the world if you never have the power to put them into practice?’ The moment that came to symbolise this dilemma more than any other was the 1983 election, when Labour was led by its most left-wing leader since pre-war times, Michael Foot, and had a manifesto that made radical party activists purr with pleasure. The party went on to suffer its most crushing defeat since the 1930s, and came perilously close to slipping into third place in the popular vote. Perhaps not unreasonably, the lesson drawn by the “modernisers” in the party – including the young Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – was that Labour’s electoral woes were directly correlated to the party’s ideological distance from the centre of gravity in the country as a whole.

“June 9th, 1983, never again!” was the new leader Neil Kinnock’s battle-cry as he embarked on the slow and painful process of moving Labour onto the centre-ground of politics where it was felt it could achieve electability. The most dramatic indication of the sacrifices the party was prepared to make came when Kinnock himself shifted on one of his most passionately-held personal beliefs, and agreed to support the retention of the UK’s nuclear weapons. In an interview days before the 1992 general election, he even suggested that as Prime Minister he might be prepared in some circumstances to launch a nuclear attack – an extraordinary position for a man who had devoted much of his political life to the cause of unilateral disarmament.

But Labour still lost the 1992 election, its fourth defeat in succession. Did this give the true believers in the “1983 maxim” some pause for thought? Quite the reverse. The fact that the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority had been slashed to 21 was cited as proof that Labour’s ideological repositioning had gained some traction with the electorate. The fact that the Conservatives remained in power simply proved that the process hadn’t gone far enough yet. So “New Labour” was born, and in Tony Blair the party suddenly had a leader who was probably further to the right than many “conservative” political leaders in continental Europe. Yet so hungry were the party faithful for power, and so completely had they bought into the modernizers’ analysis of what was required to achieve that goal, they accepted every move Blair made as being necessary. It was sometimes mischievously suggested that if Blair had wanted to reintroduce capital punishment, the party rank-and-file would have let it through on the nod.

And in 1997, the Labour party did not merely return to power, but recorded the most comprehensive victory by any side in a British general election since the 1930s. Some pointed out there was considerable evidence that if John Smith, Blair’s immediate predecessor as Labour leader, had not died in office, he would still have been able to lead the party back to power from a more traditional centre-left position. But not by anything like the same margin, the modernisers retorted. It did indeed seem to be the final, irrefutable proof that Labour’s level of support went up in direct proportion to how far it had moved to the right.

But fast forward to the present day. Gordon Brown has persisted with the Blairite strategy of tacking to the right, and yet the latest opinion polls show Labour at its lowest level of support since records began, and thus by definition lower than at the party’s 1983 nadir. Gordon Brown is a less popular leader than Michael Foot. New Labour was founded on the principle that if you are shedding votes, you must ruthlessly shed your current ideology to win those votes back. As it is the more traditional Labour voters who have been deserting the party in droves – witness the Scottish parliament election last year – the obvious conclusion to draw is that the party must shift back to the left to regain some degree of support.

The objection to this analysis might be that Labour cannot hope to win the next election with its traditional supporters alone – it needs the entire New Labour coalition of 1997. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that this coalition is long gone, and the next election is almost certainly already lost. To adapt the question that was asked in the long years of opposition to fit present-day circumstances – “if you”re going to lose anyway, what’s the point of having power for the next two years if you’re not going to use it to achieve the things your party is supposed to believe in?’