The May 1979 general election, in which Labour Party leaders who had systematically turned against their working-class base since winning office in 1974 were defeated by Thatcher’s Tories, triggered rank-and-file revolt in the Labour Party.
Local Labour activists, and for a while even some trade union leaders, rallied around the slogan “Never again”. They vowed to win changes in Labour Party structure and policy which would tie future Labour governments to the mandates and interests of the labour movement.
The revolt surged forward through 1980 and 1981, and into a Labour deputy leadership contest on 27 September 1981. Tony Benn, the figurehead of the Labour left, won a big majority of the vote among individual Labour Party members and lost to right-winger Denis Healey only by 49.6% to 50.4% after the union and MPs’ votes were counted in.
Benn’s defeat sparked debate in the Labour left. Many Labour people had been alarmed by the splitting-away of a large chunk of Labour’s right wing in March 1981, to form the SDP, which later united with the Liberals to form the “Liberal Democrats”. The union leaders were repenting of their rebellion, and signalling that they wanted a compromise with the Labour right, which they would cut at a meeting in Bishops Stortford in January 1982. Already many MPs previously considered left-wing had backed off by refusing to back Benn for deputy.
Vladimir Derer, the leader since 1973 of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, who died on 10 June this year at the age of 94, argued that the left should hunker down and take a more defensive stance. The debate on this was carried in many publications of the left, but most of all in Socialist Organiser, a forerunner of Solidarity.
Last week we published a tribute to Vladimir Derer by one of his close comrades in CLPD, Jon Lansman. Introducing Jon Lansman’s review, we noted that our forerunners worked closely with Vladimir Derer in the early 1980s, but also debated vigorously with him.
This week we print excerpts from an exchange in those debates. We still think we were right. In fairness to Vladimir Derer, it should be said many prominent Labour leftists agreed with us at that time on an “aggressive approach” (though few went along with us in arguing for a turn to democratising the unions and developing industrial action); and probably the majority of those prominent Labour leftists would, over the 1980s and 90s, swing to the soft left, to inactivity, or worse. Vladimir did not.
Time to go on the defensive
By Vladimir Derer
Brighton [the autumn 1981 Labour Party conference in Brighton] showed that, for the time being at least, the democratic advance was successfully checked. At all levels of the Party the support for further constitutional changes was seen to be ebbing.
Among the trade unions a halt to democratic reforms was called already last year when there was an overwhelming support for the reimposition of the three year rule for constitutional issues. No doubt support for democratic reforms is still strongest among the constituencies. However, even here it is falling off.
The margin, sometimes a very wide margin, by which union members expressed their preference for Healey [when ballotted in the deputy leadership election] does indicate that the argument for democratic reforms and Party policies — the platform on which Tony Benn fought his Deputy Leader campaign — is not won so far as the mass of the members of the labour movement is concerned.
Concern over Labour’s chances to win the next general election, which are threatened by the present divisions, has made the need for Party unity an urgent priority even at the cost of entering into a compromise with that wing of the Party which is led by the majority of MPs and trade union leaders.
To adopt aggressive tactics at this stage would only result in further isolate of the “left” and be even greater threat to democratic reforms already achieved.
Comrades who advocate “aggressive tactics” in the present situation are still clearly carried away by the euphoria generated by the Deputy Leadership campaign. They are simply refusing to face the fact that this campaign ended with the declaration of the final result.
The gains of the last few years can only be successfully defended in the name of Party unity. Reforms that are coming up next year must be argued for as essential for the sake of Party unity. At this stage we can only press for such reforms and policies that can still be realistically achieved.
Last but not least, it is necessary to mobilise support for the commitment by the Party leadership to a significant extension of public ownership. Without such a commitment the alternative economic strategy amounts to little more than an alternative way of running a capitalist economy.
The setting up of an entirely new organisation which would adopt a “high profile” approach — with circuses and jamborees so beloved to the far “Left”, the Communist Party, and those members of the Labour Party who try to compensate for their inability to make any headway within the Party (i.e. their failure to make full use of the existing party channels) by fantasies about the effectiveness of “extra-parliamentary” action — would make a successful defence of such gains as have been made, let alone any new achievements, quite impossible. [There was then talk of a new alliance of Labour’s left, which eventually emerged as “Labour Liaison 1982”].
Where the situation is not particularly favourable, patient explanations must replace some immediate demands, and only such immediate demands should be pressed which have some chance of being actually realised. In this context one might usefully recall what Lenin wrote 60 years ago:
“To accept battle at a time when it is obviously advantageous to the enemy, but not to us, is criminal; political leaders of the revolutionary class are absolutely useless if they are incapable of ‘changing tack, or offering conciliation and compromise’ in order to take evasive action in a patently disadvantageous battle” (Collected Works, vol.31, p.77).
• From articles in Socialist Organiser 57, 15/10/82; 58, 22/10/81, and 61, 12/11/81
Only battle can reinstill confidence
By Gerry Byrne
If there is one law in politics, it is that nothing stands still. Either you go forward and press home victories, or the ground already gained gets taken back. Vladimir Derer’s articles arguing for “low profile”, non-divisive tactics miss this vital point.
His argument that if we keep our heads down and don’t antagonise the opposition, then they’ll accept that we’re for unity too and will leave alone the democratic gains already achieved, is the wisdom of the ostrich.
It credits the right with a gentlemanly Queensbury Rules view of politics. It’s a recipe for turning a temporary retreat into a rout.
Of course it is necessary to make a sober assessment of where we are at. False optimism is only slightly less dangerous than Vladimir’s crushing defeatism. But... was there really nothing gained [from the Deputy Leadership campaign]? Was it really only the distasteful diversion Vladimir Derer sees it as?
One can’t help feeling that Vladimir Derer sees as one of the disadvantages of that campaign what I would count one of its strengths, the widening of the debate to far greater numbers of people both in the CLPs and more especially in the unions.
Why else his almost obsessive uncomplimentary references to “extraparliamentary politics” and “circuses and jamborees”?
He talks of a new mood in the Party, which is quite evidence, but he sees it entirely from the perspective of internal organisation. Yes, there is a new mood and it’s one that is not particularly advantageous to what we’re trying to do. Enormous pressures are being extended, but the question is, how do we react to them?
The problem with the “let’s unite behind the leadership we’ve got” argument is that the leadership is part of the problem. The objective pressures which create the felt need for unity at all costs are precisely that this system is in a crisis that allows of no half-way solutions.
[The answer] is widening of participation to the mass of Labour Party and trade union members; following through the fight for democracy in the unions; linking the democracy struggle with the policies needed to offer a real alternative to the Tories... extending the fight for accountability to local government... against the weak-kneed refusal by Labour councils to fight [the Tories].
The “effectiveness of extra-parliamentary action” is not a “fantasy”. It is precisely extra-parliamentary action or the lack of it which has created the climate of demoralisation. It is only action in halting the Tories’ onslaught and reinstilling confidence into the working class which will create a more amenable climate for the changes so dear to Vladimir Derer’s heart.
He seems to have fallen into the trap of taking up a mirror-image of the attitude of groups like the SWP who see the fight for Labour Party democracy as totally irrelevant to the class struggle.
Socialist Organiser 61, 12 November 1981