Why a book from the 1980s should be read by everyone in the ALP Left

Published nearly three decades ago, Patrick Seyd’s account of the rise and fall of the British Labour Left is a classic of British Labour history. It details how the Labour Left transformed from being a weak minority in the 1960s to being the group that dominated the party in the 1970s, winning a majority and changing how the party permanently.

Seyd identifies a breakdown in the post-war consensus, shifts in the rank-and-file and factional organisation as key factors that helped Labour shift leftwards. Taking advantage of these favourable conditions, the Left was strategic in its decisions, built a broad base of support and organisational infrastructure and skilfully responded to situations and the ineptitude and arrogance of Labour Right opponents. For example, supporting UDSAW’s proposal for a three-section Electoral College to prevent MPs having 50% of the vote.

Yet despite the many victories, the new Left majority fragmented and fell apart over the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. The Left split into two groupings and an alliance of the soft-left and Right resulted in what became New Labour in the 1990s.

Though the book is nearly 30 years old and is about the British Labour Left, Seyd’s assessment feels familiar. Internally, conditions are more favourable to the ALP Left than they have been for many years: the right-wing of social democracy is bereft of an agenda, the Left has championed party reform and its base of support has grown to the point of near parity with the Right at ALP National Conference.

The book offers lessons on how the ALP Left can navigate and push for change in party forums by capitalising on disllusionment, organisational skills, using disputes to add force to its arguments and using to its advantage their opponent’s apparence of arrogance, disdain and ineptitude. According to Seyd:

“Victory was achieved because of a broad base of Party support, Left organisational skills and right-wing arrogance and ineptitutde.”

While there are lessons to be learnt from how the British Labour Left succeeding in winning the party, it is Seyd’s analysis of the limitations of their strategy and their failings that everyone on the ALP Left should heed. In his assessment, he identifies some key issues and challenges that the ALP Left also faces today.

Seyd points to the lack of strategic thinking by the Brtish Labour Left and its narrow focus on the party leadership. He highlights how the Labour Left focused on party reform (specifically the leadership) at the expense of broadening its appeal and developing a coherent programme that had contemporary relevance.

“To be successful the Labour Left needed to concentrate its resources on securing a coherent Party programme which dealt with both ends and means and a Party leadership committed and united behind that programme, and on establishing a solid and continuing base of electoral support. I have argued that the Labour Left concentrated too much on the question of Party leadership at the expense of the two other objectives.”

Seyd goes on to argue:

“The Left needed a coherent programme yet it displayed ideological uncertainty, programmatic weaknesses, and strategic myopia. The ‘revolutionary reformists’ lacked ideological clarity concerning the nature of democratic socialism which left them vulnerable to attacks from both the revolutionary Left and the radical Right. The nature and extent of collective ownership and provision, and the characteristics of socialist internationalism, needed to be defined and stated with conviction. The Labour Left still relied too much on Clause Four of the Party constitution with its commitment to common ownership and popular administration but did not make clear why and how this objective was relevant in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”

Arguably the ALP Left has fallen into the same trap. Direct election and party reform, while important, has been a big focus on the Left whereas a clear vision of what it wants and a coherent programme is lacking, something I have previously written about. The articulation of a clear vision and coherent policy programme rather than a grab-bag of issues is needed. The lack of it gives credence to the criticism that there is little difference between the Right and Left today.

Seyd also highlights another overlooked discussion within the ALP Left, that of praxis. Seyd notes how Left heros often turn out to be traitors once in power as they make decisions that the Left does not support. He argues that the “traitor” or “sellout” mentality was due to the Left’s unwillingness to examine the nature of political leadership and decision-making in detail. Seyd noted that:

 “…consistency in decision-making first requires a strategy for converting principles into practice…the Left devoted little time of thought to this question of strategy”

While Left leaders of the Parliamentary Labor Party have become more common, with almost all states and territories having a member of the Left as party leader, in most cases it has not led to a discernably more left-wing Labor Party in practise. Often they have overseen privatisation or other decisions that are unpopular with members of the Left. The hostility towards Julia Gillard and Luke Foley from parts of the Left for the stances they have taken come to mind.

The Left does talk about being in a party of government, not protest, but despite this praxis is something that is rarely examined. In part, it may be due to the Left’s success in increasing representation and holding leadership positions. Geoff Robinson has pointed out that with the Victorian Left assuming leadership of the party in the 1990s under Joan Kirner, “the Left’s organisation rise was accompanied by an intellectual retreat.” Reversing that intellectual retreat and going beyond principles to thinking about strategy and praxis will be necessary for the ALP Left.

Of all Seyd’s points, the most important (and biting) is his criticism that the Labour Left was focused inwards on winning resolutions and party Conference votes rather than the outward campaigning that is necessary for a radical agenda to be accepted. He states that:

“…the contemporary Labour Left was too much concerned with resolutions and too little concerned with revolution. To secure revolutionary change, as the Conservatives have since 1979 in areas of elite and popular opinion, requires a massive outward-looking campaign addressing the public in a manner and on subjects which concern them and not a small group of resolutionary ideologues.”

The Labour Left assumed that winning the party and adopting a left-wing manifesto was the main game, ignoring the public. It also failed to respond to the changing world and was increasingly seen as a throwback to the past rather than the future. As the philosopher Roberto Unger has noted “whatever forces most credibly associate itself in the future with creation of the new, with energy, with vitality, will in the end command the day.”

“The Labour Left concentrated on the Party militants and ignored the voters, assuming that an electoral majority could be mobilised by distinct ideological leadership. Today parts of the Labour Left continue to believe that this is possible, pointing enviously to Mrs Thatcher’s distinctive politics. Second, the Labour Left made little attempt to reinterpret and develop new ideas in a consistently socialist manner in response to events in the 1980s.”

He adds that:

“Most of the socialist passion still remains concentrated on internal Party affairs when what is needed is a credible socialist current within the Party arguing and developing its position with the object of re-establishing a socialist majority amongst voters.”

From Seyd’s book, three key lessons can be drawn for the contemporary ALP Left and the broader left-wing of social democracy.

  1. The focus on party reform and structure, while important, cannot occur at the expense of a clear ideological vision and programme.
  2. The importance of praxis and grappling with the challenges of being power need to be understood
  3. An outward focus is necessary. The Left must be willing to reinterpret in response to the changing world and it must engage the public on matters that they care about.

While it may be an obscure book in Australia, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Left is a book that should be on the summer reading lists of all ALP Left activists.

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