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Squaring the Circle : the Extreme Left and the Labour Party

La quadrature du cercle : l’extrême gauche et le Parti travailliste
Jeremy Tranmer

Résumés

Bien qu’elle ait souvent réussi à mobiliser un nombre important de Britanniques lors de manifestations et qu’elle ait exercé une influence non négligeable sur le mouvement syndical, l’extrême gauche a toujours été confrontée à de nombreux obstacles qui l’empêchaient d’être une force politique de premier plan. Pendant la plus grande partie de son histoire, l’extrême gauche a hésité entre le désir de faire pression sur le Parti travailliste et la volonté d’être une force politique autonome. Cette hésitation révèle sa faiblesse au sein de l’ensemble de la gauche britannique. Quoique la plupart des tendances de l’extrême gauche aient mis fin à leur schizophrénie politique en choisissant l’indépendance, cette décision ne leur a pas permis de se renforcer.

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  • 1 The history of the extreme left can be traced back to the 1880s when several small Marxist pa (...)

1The extreme left is a permanent, albeit somewhat marginal, feature of modern British politics.1 Since the Russian Revolution of 1917, a number of organisations have advocated the collective ownership of the means of production (instead of the private ownership present in capitalism), participatory forms of political organisation (rather than parliamentary democracy), a revolutionary break with existing political and economic structures (in preference to piecemeal reform of them), and the creation of a revolutionary party to lead the working class in the class struggle (not simply to represent it in parliament). These positions have been based mainly on various interpretations of the writings of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci. Although the extreme left has often succeeded in mobilising large numbers of people in extra-parliamentary activity and has had a significant influence in the trade union movement, it has always faced serious obstacles preventing it from becoming a major force, namely the electoral system, the centrality of parliament in British politics, the absence of a strong revolutionary tradition and its own fractiousness. However, one of its most important problems has been the existence of the Labour Party, which has had an organic link with the trade unions and the support of the vast majority of left-wing working-class voters. This article will examine the current state of the extreme left through the prism of its relationship with Labour. It will suggest that, for much of its history, it has hesitated between being a pressure group, hoping to exert influence over Labour, and a political entity in its own right. This hesitation reveals a great deal about the position of the extreme left within the British left as a whole. Although most sections of the far left have put an end to their political schizophrenia by opting for an independent stance, this decision has not led to a change in its fortunes.

1920-1986 : an ambiguous but close relationship

2For most of its existence, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was the largest party on the extreme left. Despite its peculiarities (especially its ties with the Soviet Union), the CPGB faced the same predicaments in its relations with Labour as other far left parties. During its history, it tried several different approaches to the country’s main left-wing party.

The Communist Party of Great Britain

  • 2 For a brief but informative account of the overall history of the CPGB, see Willie (...)
  • 3 Ibid., 218.

3The CPGB was founded in 1920 when a number of small groups and individuals joined forces under the guidance of the Communist International.2 From the very beginning, it was part of an international movement and the British labour movement. The CPGB was always a relatively small party – its membership peaked at 56,000 in 1942 in the exceptional circumstances of the Second World War.3 Membership fell in the following years (particularly after the publication of the Khrushchev Report and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956), but there were still over 30,000 members in the early 1970s. The collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe deepened the on-going crisis in the party, and by 1991 there were only 4,742 members left. The Communist Party was never a major electoral force – its highpoint came in the first post-war elections when two Communist MPs (Willie Gallacher and Phil Piratin) were elected along with over two hundred local councillors. They both lost their seats in 1950, and by the 1980s there was only a handful of Communist councillors, mainly in Scotland and Wales.

  • 4 Nina Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-45. Alders (...)
  • 5 For a detailed history of its final years, see Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times : Th (...)

4The CPGB recruited a significant number of intellectuals in the 1930s including the historians Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and E.-P. Thompson, but many of them left in the aftermath of the events of 1956. The CPGB’s main area of strength was the trade unions where a combination of efficient organisation and “revolutionary pragmatism”4 allowed Communist trade unionists to reach positions of influence at all levels of the trade union movement. Men such as Derek Robinson (or ‘Red Robbo’ as the press nicknamed him), Ken Gill and Mick MacGahey were household names in the 1970s. The CPGB officially ceased to exist in 1991, when it changed its name to Democratic Left and abandoned Marxism-Leninism, as well as its centralized, hierarchical structures.5

The CPGB and the Labour Party

  • 6 Hugo Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain : The CPGB from its Origins to the Second World (...)

5For the first four decades of its existence, the CPGB hesitated between two basic attitudes to Labour – outright hostility and the desire for a close relationship. The CPGB first expressed total opposition to Labour during the so-called “class against class” phase of the late 1920s/early 1930s. It viewed Labour as the main enemy of the working class, believing that it was in favour of collaborating with capitalists to solve Britain’s economic problems and that it was preventing workers from preparing for an impending revolutionary situation. Hostility to Labour reached a peak during the 1929 General Election campaign when the CPGB called on voters to demand “a revolutionary workers’ government” and to vote only for Communists.6 Twenty-five Communists stood against Labour candidates, but they lost their deposits, and the party was completely isolated.

6Another phase of open hostility began in 1947, when the CPGB began to criticize the record of the post-war Labour government and its support for the United States. Labour was increasingly accused of selling out the country’s national interests (which was somewhat ironic coming from a party which had given unconditional support to the Soviet Union since its foundation). In the 1950 General Election, the CPGB put up 100 candidates (the largest number presented by the extreme left in a general election in the twentieth century, but none was elected, and most lost their deposits. The party was marginalised again.

  • 7 Lenin himself had advised British Communists to affiliate to Labour. The Labour (...)

7Apart from these two periods of total opposition, the CPGB adopted a more conciliatory attitude and tried to maintain a closer relationship with Labour. This took several forms. Between 1920 and 1946, the CPGB made nine official requests to be allowed to affiliate to the Labour Party, hoping that affiliation would help it to gain mass support within Labour.7 Not surprisingly, Labour refused, arguing that Communists did not agree with its constitution and took orders from the Communist International.

  • 8 J.-T. Walton Newbold and Shapurji Sakhlatvala were both elected in 1922 but lost (...)
  • 9 In 1927, the leading Communist Harry Pollitt was a delegate of the boilermakers’ union. H (...)
  • 10 Hugo Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain : The CPGB from its Origins to the Second World (...)
  • 11 This was the case, for example, of the Communist sympathizers who dominated the leadershi (...)
  • 12 However, no conclusive evidence has ever been found to corroborate these claims. Darren G (...)

8At various times in the 1920s and 1930s, Communists joined the Labour Party individually. In the early 1920s, there was nothing in Labour’s constitution to prevent Communists from joining on an individual basis (two Communists were even elected as Labour MPs)8 or from being chosen as trade union delegates to Labour Party conferences.9 As late as 1927, the CPGB claimed that 1,455 of its members were involved in the Labour Party and established the National Left-Wing Movement to co-ordinate their activities.10 Open participation of Communists in Labour’s affairs only ceased in the late 1920s due to a combination of administrative pressure from Labour’s leaders and a change in the CPGB’s strategy. However, between 1936 and 1939, Labour Party members wishing to join the CPGB were advised to remain in their party and to argue in favour of Communist policies.11 This practice stopped when the war broke out, but it was widely rumoured that several pro-Soviet Labour MPs elected in 1945 were in fact Communists.12

  • 13 For a detailed presentation of these activities, see Jim Fyrth (ed.), Britain, Fascism an (...)
  • 14 This aim was expressed most clearly in the version of the Party’s long-term programme ado (...)

9For most of its existence the CPGB advocated unity between the two parties and hoped to develop joint activity. In 1935, for example, it declared its aim of a united front of all left-wing parties. Predictably, the Labour Party rejected this overture, but the CPGB succeeded in stimulating joint activity at local level as rank and file Labour members participated in mass campaigns against fascism in Britain and abroad.13 From the mid-1950s onwards, the CPGB constantly pressed for unity between the two parties. By the late 1970s, it had dropped references to the long-term aim of replacing the Labour Party and emphasized the need for closer cooperation with the left-wing of the Labour Party. In order to reinforce the latter, Communists used their strength in the trade union movement to try to ensure that unions would be represented by left-wing delegates at Labour conferences. It was hoped that this cooperation would eventually result in the creation of a government composed of left-wing Labour and Communist MPs.14 To attempt to force the Labour Party to take it seriously and to agree to cooperate with it, the CPGB decided to put up more candidates in local and national elections.

The unravelling of the contradictions in the CPGB’s approach

10The CPGB thus found it extremely difficult to come to terms with the Labour Party, hesitating for many years about whether to oppose Labour outright or support it. It was forced to abandon its attempts at challenging Labour as they had resulted in abject failure and isolation. Nevertheless, it was unable to find an appropriate way of developing a constructive relationship. Infiltrating Labour was hardly likely to win Communists many friends in the long-term. Its pleas for unity were unlikely to be taken seriously as its goal, until the late 1960s, was to replace Labour, and in the 1970s the CPGB frequently stood candidates against Labour in elections. Furthermore, the fact that it even entertained the hope that a party of government would come to an agreement with it shows a mixture of a highly inflated sense of its own importance and wishful thinking. Finally, as the CPGB emphasized so strongly the importance of influencing Labour, it would have been more logical for Communists and Communist sympathizers to join the Labour Party directly, raising the question of the necessity of having a separate party.

  • 15 See Dave Purdy & Mike Prior, Out of the Ghetto, Nottingham : Spokesman Press, 1979.

11By the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of these contradictions which had previously been only partially apparent suddenly came to the surface. As a result of the CPGB’s decline, the aim of unity with Labour seemed increasingly unrealistic, even to many convinced Communists. A significant minority of members, including Dave Purdy and Mike Prior, followed the party’s strategy to its logical conclusion and joined Labour.15 The latter was particularly attractive in the early 1980s as it was clearly moving to the left. Finally, the desirability of putting up any Communist candidates at all in elections was questioned when, in 1985, the CPGB came out in favour of directing all its efforts to defeating Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. As a result, fewer than twenty Communists candidates fought the 1987 general election.

  • 16 Eric Hobsbawm, “The Forward March of Labour Halted”, in Eric Hobsbawm, Politics (...)
  • 17 Stuart Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show”, Marxism Today, January 1979, 14-20.
  • 18 Democratic Left also increasingly concentrated on publishing discussion papers and organi (...)
  • 19 One of the few accounts of the transformation of the CPGB into Democratic Left is : Nina (...)

12However, the CPGB did exert a significant indirect influence over Labour in the early 1980s. Its monthly theoretical review Marxism Today was widely read by the modernizing wing of the Labour Party around Neil Kinnock. Eric Hobsbawm’s ongoing analysis of what he termed “The Forward March of Labour Halted”16 and Stuart Hall’s pioneering interpretation of Thatcherism17 were extremely influential. This rare success story convinced some Communists that it was still possible to influence Labour but that the CPGB was no longer a suitable vehicle to do so. Seen from this perspective, the decision in 1991 to transform the CPGB into Democratic Left can be interpreted, to a certain extent, as yet another attempt to destroy the barriers in the way of developing a closer relationship with Labour.18 This is confirmed by the evolution of Democratic Left in the following years. In 1993, it redefined itself as a “political organisation”. Its members were thus able to join a political party and remain members of Democratic Left. A third of the 1,500 members joined Labour.19

Trotskyite groups

  • 20 This vision is shared by anti-communist historians of both the right and left. Trotskyist (...)
  • 21 This is the central thesis of Matthew Worley’s Class Against Class : The Communist Party in Britain (...)

13It could be argued that the problems facing the CPGB in its relations with Labour were due to the fact that it was part of an international movement and had to follow a line that was decided in Moscow.20 However, recent research has shown that the CPGB’s relations with Moscow were much more complicated. To take the example of the adoption of the “class against class” strategy mentioned above, it has been proved that the CPGB was increasingly hostile to the Labour Party from the end of the General Strike in 1926 onwards. “Class against class” was not therefore the major break in Communist strategy that it was previously believed to be. Moreover, the opening of the CPGB’s archives has proved that some leading Communists as well as rank and file members were in favour of the new strategy.21 The same could be said of other changes in the CPGB’s position, such as the adoption of the more sectarian strategy in the late 1940s. In other words, Communists were often divided over how to relate to Labour, and these divisions ran from the top to the bottom of the Party.

  • 22 John Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics, op. cit., 61. Because of the (...)

14The problems that the CPGB had in its relations with Labour were, in fact, typical of those experienced by all groups and parties, who had difficulties in coming to terms with Labour and implemented radical changes in their strategies. Most Trotskyist groups, for example, have engaged in entrism at some point in their history and have had independent existences at other times. Small Trotskyist groupings appeared in the course of the 1930s, but by 1949 most British Trotskyists had joined the Labour Party to escape isolation.22

  • 23 For an insider’s account of the history of Militant, see Peter Taafe, The Rise of Militan (...)
  • 24 Michael Crick, The March of Militant, London : Faber & Faber, 1986, 215-263.
  • 25 It was also the main driving force behind the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, one o (...)
  • 26 For the SWP’s traditional analysis of the Labour Party, see Tony Cliff & Donny (...)

15The best-known Trotskyist organisation was the Militant group, named after the newspaper its supporters sold. Its members entered and organised within Labour, believing that a future economic crisis would radicalize Labour and allow Militant supporters to come to positions of leadership.23 Militant built up a power base within the Labour Party in Merseyside.24 In the 1982 local elections, Labour, dominated by Militant supporters under the leadership of Derek Hatton, gained control of Liverpool’s local council. For the first time in British history, an extreme left organisation had gained a certain amount of power, rather than mere influence within the labour movement. It resulted in a major confrontation with the Conservative government over the finances of the city. By 1987, Militant also had three MPs (Dave Nellist, Pat Wall and Terry Fields) and claimed a membership of over 8,000.25 Other Trotskyist organisations have also engaged in entrism. The International Socialists (IS), the forerunners of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), only left the Labour Party in 1965. Afterwards, IS/SWP very rarely presented candidates against Labour in elections and called on its members and sympathizers to vote Labour. Only in 1977 and 1978 did the newly-formed SWP regularly stand candidates in parliamentary by-elections and local elections, but a combination of falling support for Labour and the SWP’s disappointing results led it to abandon electoral activity.26

16Although it hesitated and changed strategy, much of the extreme left attempted for many years to establish a close relationship with Labour, whether inside or outside it, and avoided direct confrontation whenever possible. In doing so, it was considerably more successful than when it tried to challenge Labour electorally. Even though its successes were relatively rare and of limited impact, they were sufficient to justify its overall approach. The extreme left was never in a position to exert a decisive influence over Labour. Its approach began to change in the mid-1980s, when its theoretical position was undermined.

1983-2011 : towards outright opposition

17To a certain extent, the problems facing the extreme left were inevitable given the difference in size between it and the Labour Party. One of the attractions of entrism was that joining a larger party held out the possibility of relatively rapid access to power. However, the specific nature of the British left meant that the problems facing the extreme left in its relations with Labour were for many years of a fundamental or even existential nature.

The specificity of the British left

18For many years, the Labour Party was an ideologically diverse party, which had a commitment to socialism and an organic relationship with the trade union movement. It was generally accepted that the Labour Party was a “broad church” which represented a wide spectrum of opinions ranging from moderate social democracy to revolutionary Marxism. Its left wing, which was far from homogeneous, had its place within the party and could point to the party’s constitution to justify its presence. Clause IV of the constitution stated clearly that Labour’s long-term aim was “the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, which figured on party membership cards. Although this vision of socialism was rather vague and not always taken very seriously by the Party’s leaders, it did represent a commitment to the building of a radically different society. The Labour Party also had close links with the trade unions as it was originally founded as the parliamentary wing of the labour movement. Trade unions were represented in its hierarchy and were allowed to vote at its conferences.

19Thus, the extreme left could justify the search for a close relationship with Labour. It believed that there was the possibility that Labour could be forced to take its commitment to socialism seriously if the balance of forces within the Party was different. Working within Labour could therefore be quite easily justified. Moreover, for the extreme left, Labour’s connection with the trade unions was very important as it ensured it was, to a certain extent, a genuinely working class party. Although the extreme left was present in all trade unions movement, it did not have their official support. This situation had far-reaching consequences for the extreme left. The fundamental issue of its existence as an independent entity could not go away as long as Labour retained its specific features. The extreme left was constantly torn between trying to exist in its own right and existing through Labour. As a result, it had a permanent identity crisis as it hesitated between emphasizing either its own characteristics or its shared ground with Labour. This helps explain the changing positions of the extreme left as well as its overall tendency to seek a close relationship with Labour.

The changing attitude of the extreme left

  • 27 Peter Taafe, The Rise of Militant, op. cit., 453-463.
  • 28 They launched a new grouping called Socialist Appeal, named after the newspaper they (...)
  • 29 Much of the extreme left has always had an ambivalent attitude towards election (...)

20However, the situation began to change from the early-1980s onwards. In 1983, the Labour Party leadership expelled five members of the editorial board of the Militant newspaper, accusing them of being members of “a party within the Party”. Three years later, it ousted other leading members of Militant. At the same time, Labour began to move to the right under Neil Kinnock, abandoning the left-wing policies it had adopted in the early 1980s, including its economic programme based on the large-scale nationalization of industry. This led Militant to rethink its strategy and relationship with Labour. The first sign of this was the decision to launch Scottish Militant Labour (SML) as an independent party in 1991.27 SML managed to build on the roots that Militant had put down in Scotland during the campaign against the Poll Tax. In Glasgow, four SML members, including Tommy Sheridan who had led the movement against the Poll Tax in Scotland, were elected to the local council. Believing that it could repeat the success of SML, Militant left the Labour Party in England and Wales in 1993 to form Militant Labour, which renamed itself the Socialist Party three years later. Militant thus put an end to over forty years of factional activity within Labour. Nevertheless, some Militant members, including its founder Ted Grant, rejected the new strategy and opted to remain within the Labour Party.28 As a result of the political culture in which it had evolved for several decades, the Socialist Party has constantly stood candidates in local and national elections, unlike other sections of the extreme left.29

21Labour’s abandoning of Clause IV and its weakening of the union link in the mid-1990s led many extreme left activists to conclude that it had undergone a fundamental change.30 It was no longer a working class party and did not have the potential to be a radical socialist force. Therefore, many decided that it had to be challenged electorally. At the same time, some activists within Labour, the most prominent of whom was the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers Arthur Scargill, came to the same conclusion. In 1996, Scargill led his supporters out of the Labour Party to form the Socialist Labour Party (SLP). In many ways, the SLP saw itself as a more left-wing version of the Labour Party. Its constitution includes the original Clause IV of Labour’s constitution, but it contains a commitment to abolishing capitalism and to replacing it with a socialist system.31 The SLP also invited unions to affiliate to it. It was hailed by the extreme left as the first ever significant left-wing split from Labour involving leading trade unionists, and the SLP immediately attracted members of small far left groupings. However, the SLP has been unable to make a breakthrough in elections. In the 2001 General Election, for example, its 114 candidates averaged only 1.42 % of the votes cast. In the 2005 and 2010 elections, it stood a smaller number of candidates, but their share of the vote fell. Moreover, Scargill’s firm grip on the organisation has created disagreements, and a steady stream of members has left, including the prominent trade unionist Bob Crowe. The SLP has claimed to have 2,000 members, but in reality has probably only several hundred.

Realignment on the left of the left

  • 32 For a detailed account of this process, see Jeremy Tranmer, “Alliances socialistes : chan (...)
  • 33 For a list of the SSP’s basic demands and its vision of a socialist Scottish society, see (...)

22The general turn towards challenging Labour has led to attempts to create a more united opposition.32 The most significant of these concerns Scotland where the electoral success of Militant and its successors suggested that there was a space for a party to the left of Labour. In 1998, the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) was formed when several organisations, including the Socialist Party, the Communist Party of Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Movement and former members of the Labour Party, joined forces. They were joined later by the SWP. The SSP claimed over 2,000 members. The organisations which founded it continued to exist as tendencies within the new party. The SSP’s demands include independence for Scotland, free school meals, the legalization of cannabis and an end to the sale of council houses.33 Its elected representatives receive the average Scottish wage and donate the rest to the party.

  • 34 Tommy Sheridan, Rosie Kane, Colin Fox, Frances Curran, Carolyn Leckie and Rosemary Byrne.

23Its mixture of nationalism and left-wing politics allowed the SSP to attract voters disillusioned by the transformation of Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair and to become a significant feature of Scottish politics. In the 1999 elections to the Scottish Parliament, SSP candidates received an average of 2 % of the votes cast throughout Scotland, but Tommy Sheridan’s 22 % in the Glasgow Pollack constituency enabled him to be elected. In the 2001 General Election the SSP contested all the Scottish constituencies and its candidates averaged 3.4 %. However, two years later the SSP vote jumped to over 7 % in the elections to the Scottish Parliament and, due to proportional representation, six of its members won seats in Holyrood.34 The SSP’s progress was halted by the fall-out from allegations concerning the private life of the charismatic Tommy Sheridan, who was forced to resign as convenor of the party. In the 2005 General Election its candidates’ share of the vote fell to just under 2 %. In the following years, the SSP underwent an acrimonious split, with Sheridan and his allies, particularly the SWP, forming a rival party named Solidarity-Scotland’s Socialist Movement. In subsequent elections, neither the SSP nor Solidarity have been able to pose an electoral threat to Labour.

24The relative, albeit temporary, success of the SSP contrasts sharply with the experience of similar attempts to unite the extreme left in England and Wales. In 1998, the Network of Socialist Alliances was formed. In the following years, a number of groups participated in the activities of the Socialist Alliance such as the Socialist Party, the SWP, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Committee), the Alliance for Workers Liberty, the Green Socialist Network, as well as former Labour Party activists including Liz Davies and Ken Coates, independent socialists such as Bruce Kent and Hilary Wainwright, and trade unionists including Bob Crowe and Mark Serwotka.

25The elections results of the Socialist Alliance were mixed. In the 2000 Greater London Assembly elections, its 14 candidates received 2.9 % of the votes, but two of them (Cecilia Prosper and Theresa Bennett) received over 5 %. These results were considered encouraging, and in a series of local by-elections in London, the Socialist Alliance regularly polled over 5 %. It therefore decided to mount a major challenge to Labour in the 2001 General Election and stood 98 candidates. However, they received an average of 587 votes each (a mere 1.69 %). The highest result was that of the former Militant MP and national chair of the Socialist Alliance, Dave Nellist, who polled 7.1 % in Coventry North-East. In the 2003 local elections, it gained just one councillor (Michael Lavalette in Preston). The Socialist Alliance was able to appeal to activists opposed to Labour, but it was unable to reach out to a significant section of people disappointed with Labour’s record in power. This resulted partly from the Alliance’s inability to go beyond opposition to Labour’s record in power and to develop a credible alternative programme rather than a simple list of measures.

  • 35 See the quotations from internal SWP documents published in the Weekly Worker newspaper i (...)

26However, the Socialist Party left the Alliance in 2001, while the Socialist Labour Party consistently refused to have anything to do with it. Moreover, the domination of the Alliance by the SWP created problems, leading eventually to the departure of Liz Davies. The SWP has been the largest extreme left party since the late 1980s. It claimed 10,000 members in the early 1990s, although this figure was probably inflated. By 2010 membership was officially down to under 6,500, although the active membership is rumoured to be considerably smaller.35 The SWP was formed in 1977 when the International Socialists, under the firm leadership of Tony Cliffe, changed their name and organisational structures. The SWP is without doubt the most active far left organisation, publishing a weekly newspaper (Socialist Worker), and a theoretical review (International Socialism), having an active presence in the trade union movement, being the moving force behind campaigns such as the Anti-Nazi League, Globalize Resistance, and the Right to Work Campaign, and organizing every year a week-long series of debates and discussions (“Marxism”).

  • 36 Members of the extreme left played a leading role in the Stop the War Coalition (...)
  • 37 For Galloway’s account of the creation of Respect, see George Galloway, I’m Not the Only (...)

27Disappointed with the lack of progress of the Socialist Alliance and hoping to capitalize on the success of the Stop the War Coalition,36 the SWP helped to found Respect – the unity coalition with the controversial former Labour MP George Galloway and representatives of the Muslim community.37 This decision divided the extreme left, elements of which were suspicious of Galloway’s intentions and opposed to the watering down of traditional socialist principles and policies in order to appeal to a wider constituency, composed mainly of Muslims. The 2005 General Election saw George Galloway elected to the House of Commons and Respect candidates gain on average 6.85 % of the votes cast. However, Respect faced a damaging split, with the SWP and its supporters pulling out. Recriminations continued within the SWP, and John Rees, under whose leadership it had participated in Respect, was demoted in 2008 and replaced by Martin Smith. Two years later Rees, his partner Lindsay German and forty other sympathizers resigned from the SWP and created a new organisation, Counterfire. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party attempted, with little success, to reach out to others in order to create a new workers’ party.

28By the time of the 2010 elections, the extreme left was thus in a state of disarray. This was one of the main factors in its decision to stand only a very limited number of candidates, despite its continued hostility to the Labour Party, whose record in office it criticized virulently. The Socialist Party, the SWP, former members of the Labour Party and members of the Rail Maritime and Transport Workers union (RMT) created the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Its forty-two candidates gained on average less than one percent of the votes cast in the constituencies where they were present.38 The Respect MP George Galloway lost his seat and received a mere 17 % of the vote, while the SSP gained on average 0.8 %. The elections were thus an unmitigated disaster for the extreme left. It was punished for its inability to create a credible political programme and was deserted by some sympathizers who preferred to vote Labour in order to try to prevent, or at least to limit the scale of a Conservative victory.

29Since the mid-1990s, there have thus been several realignments of the extreme left aiming to unite significant sections of it. They have been partly in reaction to the rightward drift of the Labour Party and have gone hand in hand with attempts to develop an organisational and an electoral challenge to Labour. This is exemplified by the fact that no major organisation is currently engaged in entrism or attempting to establish a close relationship with Labour. This change has clarified relations between the extreme left and Labour and removed a great deal of the ambiguity in them. Nevertheless, it has not led to a lasting change in the extreme left’s fortunes, as it has not created a sustainable electoral base or transformed its position within the trade union movement. The election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party seems unlikely to produce a major rethink of strategy on the left of the left, although radical forces may withdraw even further from the electoral stage to focus on the movement against government spending cuts and opposition to the extreme right-wing British National Party and the English Defence League.

Conclusion

30For much of its history, the extreme left struggled to exist in its own right and tended to see itself mainly in relation to the Labour Party. Unable to square the circle of its relations with Labour, it functioned above all as a pressure group, attempting to influence Labour from the inside or the outside and push it further to the left. Given the extreme left’s dependency on Labour, it was inevitable that fundamental changes to the latter would have profound consequences for the former. Since the mid-1980s, the extreme left has increasingly acted as an independent political force and tried to present itself as a potential alternative to Labour. However, political and organisational weaknesses have prevented it from developing a sustained challenge to Britain’s main left of centre party, and it has never been able to capitalize on Labour’s unpopularity or its drift to the right. No matter how it positions itself, the non-Labour left seems incapable of finding a solution to its existential crisis and of becoming a significant element of British politics. This conclusion may not be particularly new. Nevertheless, its situation is more hopeless than in the past since it has exhausted its strategic possibilities and is surviving, according to Gramsci’s maxim, on “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”.

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Notes

1 The history of the extreme left can be traced back to the 1880s when several small Marxist parties appeared and challenged the reformism which dominated the labour movement in Britain. However, the Russian Revolution was a turning point as it led to a process of ideological and political realignment which created the extreme left as it exists today. Relatively little has been written about the history of the extreme left, and even less about its recent past and current situation. Most studies examine individual parties in isolation from the rest of the labour movement. Looking at the extreme left as a whole and its long-term relationship with the Labour Party sheds new light on the difficulties it currently faces.

2 For a brief but informative account of the overall history of the CPGB, see Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause : British Communism, 1920-1991. London : Pluto Press, 1992.

3 Ibid., 218.

4 Nina Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-45. Aldershot : Scolar Press, 1995, 21.

5 For a detailed history of its final years, see Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times : The Final Years of British Communism, 1964-1991, London : Lawrence & Wishart, 2004. Democratic Left has since changed names, becoming the New Times Network and then the New Politics Network. The latter merged with Charter 88 to form Unlock Democracy. Various offshoots from the CPGB have continued to describe themselves as “Communist”. The most significant is the Communist Party of Britain, whose members continue to publish the daily newspaper, The Morning Star.

6 Hugo Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain : The CPGB from its Origins to the Second World War, London : Pluto, 1976, 91.

7 Lenin himself had advised British Communists to affiliate to Labour. The Labour Party was at the time a federal party which allowed other organisations to affiliate to it as long as they shared Labour’s methods and objectives. When the CPGB was founded, the British Socialist Party, the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society were all affiliated to the Labour Party.

8 J.-T. Walton Newbold and Shapurji Sakhlatvala were both elected in 1922 but lost their seats two years later.

9 In 1927, the leading Communist Harry Pollitt was a delegate of the boilermakers’ union. He was soon to become the general secretary of the CPGB.

10 Hugo Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain : The CPGB from its Origins to the Second World War, op. cit., 41.

11 This was the case, for example, of the Communist sympathizers who dominated the leadership of the Labour Party’s League of Youth in the mid-1930s. John Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics, Oxford : Blackwell, 1987, 45.

12 However, no conclusive evidence has ever been found to corroborate these claims. Darren G. Lilleker, Against the Cold War : The History and Political Traditions of Pro-Sovietism in the British Labour Party, 1945-89, London : IB Taurus, 2004, 70-103.

13 For a detailed presentation of these activities, see Jim Fyrth (ed.), Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front, London : Lawrence & Wishart, 1985.

14 This aim was expressed most clearly in the version of the Party’s long-term programme adopted at its 1977 congress. Communist Party of Great Britain, The British Road to Socialism, London : CPGB, 1978.

15 See Dave Purdy & Mike Prior, Out of the Ghetto, Nottingham : Spokesman Press, 1979.

16 Eric Hobsbawm, “The Forward March of Labour Halted”, in Eric Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left, London : Verso, 1989, 9-22. His analysis of the state of the left led him to call for tactical voting against the Conservatives in 1987.

17 Stuart Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show”, Marxism Today, January 1979, 14-20.

18 Democratic Left also increasingly concentrated on publishing discussion papers and organising conferences to stimulate debate in political parties.

19 One of the few accounts of the transformation of the CPGB into Democratic Left is : Nina Fishman, “The British Road is Resurfaced for New Times : From the British Communist Party to the Democratic Left”, in Martin J. Bull & Paul Heywood, West European Communist Parties after the Revolutions of 1989, London : St Martin Press, 1994, 145-177.

20 This vision is shared by anti-communist historians of both the right and left. Trotskyist historians, in particular, have emphasized the centrality of the CPGB’s international links to its political development. See, for example, Hugo Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain : The CPGB from its Origins to the Second World War, op. cit.

21 This is the central thesis of Matthew Worley’s Class Against Class : The Communist Party in Britain between the Wars, London : IB Tauris, 2002.

22 John Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics, op. cit., 61. Because of the widespread use of entrism, it is impossible to define the extreme left simply as comprising all organisations to the left of the Labour Party.

23 For an insider’s account of the history of Militant, see Peter Taafe, The Rise of Militant : Militant’s 30 Years, London : Militant Publications, 1995.

24 Michael Crick, The March of Militant, London : Faber & Faber, 1986, 215-263.

25 It was also the main driving force behind the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, one of whose demonstrations in March 1990 was attended by 200,000 people and weakened Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative government.

26 For the SWP’s traditional analysis of the Labour Party, see Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party : A Marxist History, London : Bookmarks, 1996 [1988].

27 Peter Taafe, The Rise of Militant, op. cit., 453-463.

28 They launched a new grouping called Socialist Appeal, named after the newspaper they published.

29 Much of the extreme left has always had an ambivalent attitude towards elections. This is partly for purely pragmatic reasons since mounting an election campaign is expensive, and candidates very rarely receive enough votes to keep their deposit. Moreover, poor results can also be demoralizing for activists. However, a major issue is also at stake. The extreme left has tended to emphasize the fundamental importance of economic power in industry, seeing political power in parliament as a mere reflection of this and deriding it as “bourgeois” democracy. As a result, it has usually concentrated on its work in the trade union movement and downgraded elections.

30 From the mid-1980s onwards, the CPGB and its successors must be seen as exceptions to the general trend. They have continued to try to influence Labour, and some of their members and sympathizers, such as Charlie Leadbetter and Geoff Mulgan have worked very closely with New Labour. The Communist Party of Britain and The Morning Star continue to give critical support to Labour and hope to strengthen what remains of its left wing.

31 <http://www.socialist-labour-party.org.uk/policies.html>, accessed 30 June 2011.

32 For a detailed account of this process, see Jeremy Tranmer, “Alliances socialistes : chant de cygne de l’extrême gauche ou menace pour les néo-travaillistes ?”, in « Les Années Blair », Observatoire de la société britannique (Université du Sud Toulon-Var), 3 February 2007, 199-214. All election results, except for the 2010 general election are taken from this article.

33 For a list of the SSP’s basic demands and its vision of a socialist Scottish society, see <http://www.scottishsocialistparty.org/new_stories/furniture/12pointplan.html>, accessed 30 June 2011.

34 Tommy Sheridan, Rosie Kane, Colin Fox, Frances Curran, Carolyn Leckie and Rosemary Byrne.

35 See the quotations from internal SWP documents published in the Weekly Worker newspaper in January 2011 : <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004216>, accessed 30 June 2011.

36 Members of the extreme left played a leading role in the Stop the War Coalition which organised numerous activities against the war in Iraq, culminating in the largest demonstration in British history on 15 February 2003. Its chair at the time was Andrew Murray, a member of the Communist Party of Britain, while its convenor, Lindsey German, belonged to the SWP.

37 For Galloway’s account of the creation of Respect, see George Galloway, I’m Not the Only One, London : Allen Lane, 2004, 150-176.

38 All results for the 2010 elections are taken from <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1003941>, accessed 15 June 2010. Significantly, the Socialist Party also lost the three local council seats it was defending, while the SWP lost its sole councillor.

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Référence électronique

Jeremy Tranmer, « Squaring the Circle : the Extreme Left and the Labour Party », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XII-n°8 | 2014, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2014, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/7110 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.7110

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Auteur

Jeremy Tranmer

Université de Lorraine, France. Jeremy Tranmer is a senior lecturer at the University of Lorraine (Nancy), France. He wrote his PhD thesis about the Communist Party of Great Britain and its opposition to the Thatcher governments. He has published widely on the left in general, and the radical left in particular, examining political parties, trade unions and extra-parliamentary campaigns including anti-fascism. He is also interested in the relationship between the left and popular music and in musical opposition to Thatcherism.

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