Getting things wrong

Submitted by AWL on 15 September, 2015 - 5:27 Author: Martin Thomas

Some delegates at the Labour Party special conference on 12 September estimated that maybe a majority of those in the hall were unhappy about Jeremy Corbyn being elected Labour leader.

Among ourselves, in Workers’ Liberty, we consider it tacky to applaud “leaders”; indeed, we have a rule banning such applause at our conferences. In the Labour Party, it is reckoned routine courtesy to give standing ovations to leaders. But many in the hall, so I’m told, could only bring themselves to clap politely.

Unlike in the 1980s, we have a Labour Party where the rank and file members are on average to the left of the delegates, secretaries, and such. Activists should work to draw the newer, more left-wing members into the constituency organisations and into Young Labour groups.

But there has been leftish movement at the level of delegates, secretaries, and so on. Without that, without pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to stand and then on MPs to nominate him, Corbyn’s campaign would never have started.

In fact I’d noted that in reports for Solidarity from Labour Party conferences since 2010.

2011: “the most lively in years.. some things are moving —too few, and too little... but those in the Labour Party who want to reassert socialist ideas have a little more room to do that. — Solidarity 219

2012: “conference is a bit more feisty than in recent years over procedural matters” — Solidarity 259

2014: [fringe meetings indicate] “there’s more left-wing feeling in the Labour Party ranks than you’d guess from the very-controlled proceedings inside the conference centre” - Solidarity 337.

I noted, but I underestimated. I was doubtful that Corbyn would get on the ballot paper (it was a last-minute scramble, after three unsuccessful attempts to get other potential left candidates to run), and then I actually wrote in Solidarity that he couldn’t win because the mood in the labour movement was too conservative.

Getting things wrong has many downsides. It has an upside, though, as long as we don’t forget our disproved opinions, or reinterpret them: we can learn.

Readers have asked why I didn’t write about Tony Benn in my whistle-stop survey of past Labour lefts in Solidarity 375.

Short answer: the article was about organised left wings, rather than about leaders. Tony Benn was a figure in at least two of the groups mentioned, the Rank and File Mobilising Committee and the Socialist Campaign Group Network, but as a leader rather than an organiser.

Longer answer: a BBC profile described Corbyn as “a disciple” of Tony Benn, but that is not quite right.

In 1992, in the Labour Party leader contest caused by Neil Kinnock’s resignation after he lost that year’s general election, I canvassed both Benn and Corbyn to stand. Ken Livingstone had puffed himself as the left candidate, but only as a publicity stunt (he got very few nominations); and he was writing a regular column in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun which he often used to attack the left, particularly the Anti-Nazi League and the SWP.

Benn said no, he was too old. Corbyn should do it. Corbyn said no, he wasn’t a big enough figure, Benn should do it. Neither disputed my argument that a real left candidate was desirable in place of Livingstone, but neither was willing.

In that sense Benn regarded Corbyn as the next leader of the Labour left, and Corbyn regarded Benn as his senior. But Jeremy Corbyn became a Labour left-winger while Benn was still a loyal minister in the 1974-9 Labour government.

In scanning old newspapers to check those facts, I found a report from the time on a vote-out in the Campaign Group of MPs. It was on a proposal to launch a rank and file Labour left activist network sponsored by the Campaign Group.

The proposal was voted down on the grounds that an activist network with a democratic structure would be dominated by “Trotskyist groups”. Only two of the left MPs voted for it: the late Bernie Grant, and Jeremy Corbyn.

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