Twenty years ago I was part of what would now be called a “social movement”.
It grew out of anger, frustration and desperation at years and years of Tory misrule.
It grew out of despair that Labour could ever win again after repeated election defeats.
It grew out of a desire for radical social change – a desire for an assault on poverty, an end to cuts, for massive investment in creaking public services.
It took its socialism very seriously. For a year we held big meetings round the country where we earnestly debated what it meant to be a democratic socialist in the modern age, examined the ideas of Gramsci, Marx, Robert Owen, and how these might be applied to the challenges Britain faced. Eventually after much ideological upheaval we rejected the old, statist approach we had grown up with, and came up with a new constitution which for the first time included the “s” word and stated that we were a “democratic socialist party… [that] believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”
At the same time huge changes were made to the internal democracy of our party. Members and trade unionists were for the first time consulted in leadership elections through One Member One Vote. This was also used to select parliamentary candidates for the first time. MPs were banned from hogging the members’ places on the party National Executive so that real grassroots activists could serve there. A referendum was held on the General Election manifesto to ensure it had a mandate from the party members.
We had a succession of charismatic leaders, each elected by crushing, overwhelming personal mandates, 71 per cent in 1983, 89 per cent in 1988, 91 per cent in 1992, 57 per cent but a still record-breaking 507,000 votes in 1994.
After this last victory, membership doubled to over 400,000. Local branches were reinvigorated as former members came streaming back and young idealists flocked to the cause. For the first time in decades we had a vibrant youth section that owed its loyalty to our ideology not an external one.
The “social movement” I was part of was called the Labour Party.
The difference between the way the Labour Party behaved then and the way Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum are behaving now is that it had humility. We did not think we had a monopoly of wisdom. We assumed that our election defeats meant that voters were trying to tell us something and we ought to listen. Our main activity was not the hosting of large, self-congratulatory rallies, though each of Kinnock, Smith and Blair was a hundred times more compelling an orator than Corbyn, capable of stirring tears of emotion not tears of boredom and despair. Rather it was to systematically go out and speak on the doorstep to millions of ordinary working people and listen to what they wanted.
Within the party the whole spectrum of opinion was engaged in the project of seeking victory, with left-wing figures like Prescott, Dobson, Cook, Short all holding significant shadow portfolios and working as a team. We had iron discipline in our messaging and media management, led by the best professional political communicators in Europe. In Parliament the Tories were terrified of the razor-sharp, forensic performance at the dispatch box of our leader and our Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Foreign Secretary. We were united because we knew if we did not win the party and our hopes of a better society might die.
Our exercise in listening to the voters meant that we were able to do what very few social movements do and become immensely, genuinely popular, not just with political activists but with ordinary people of all classes.
We seemed to have found a recipe for re-popularising the politics of the left and democratic socialism after decades of steady decline.
And really it did not involve having to make too many compromises.
It needed a popular and charismatic leader who voters could identify with.
It needed an everyday language of aspiration and hope rather than the clunky internally-focused rhetoric historically loved by activists on the left.
It needed the junking of three policy areas that had previously been obstacles to victory: weakness on defence, weakness on crime, and a propensity to raise income tax. I didn’t find this a tough price to pay, as many years reading Marx and Engels had not led me to believe it was essential to socialist ideology to believe in unilateral disarmament, or to dislike the police, or to want to hike income tax on the base rate payers who make up most of the “99 per cent”.
And in return we were able to propose a radical manifesto with five simple, costed pledges that we guaranteed to deliver:
- cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds by using money from the assisted places scheme
- fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders by halving the time from arrest to sentencing
- cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step by releasing £100 million saved from NHS red tape
- get 250,000 under-25-year-olds off benefit and into work by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities
- no rise in income tax rates, cut VAT on heating to 5 per cent and inflation and interest rates as low as possible
In contrast to the Tory opinion poll lead of 16 per cent now, we were chalking up Labour leads of up to 36 per cent – with Labour topping 60 per cent in some ICM polls, while we were in power!
Electorally it looked beautiful. Three thumping general election victories, two with over 400 seats. Places like South Dorset electing a Labour MP. The Tories in meltdown with serious debate about whether they could ever be in power again. For a while it looked like we had achieved a democratic socialist ideological hegemony in the UK.
And socially, politically, economically it was beautiful. It was the best time to have ever been British, particularly if you were not well-off and needed the state to give you a better life.
Labour deliberately, systematically, transferred huge amounts of cash to the poorest people and poorest communities.
I wrote this about Chatham Ward in Hackney where I was councillor:
“I represent Chatham Ward, one of the most deprived in London. The funding pumped into public services in areas like this by Labour nationally and when Ken [Livingstone] was London Mayor has been really transformative. Chatham Ward got a newly built City Academy, two secondary schools and a primary school rebuilt under Building Schools for the Future, a children’s centre, a neighbourhood policing team, more frequent train services, upgraded stations, new windows, roofs, kitchens and bathrooms for many of the council flats in the ward under Decent Homes. That’s without all the investment in existing high-quality services like Homerton Hospital, and the improvements to people’s personal income through the minimum wage, tax credits, benefit changes and lower unemployment. We seem shy nationally about saying what we did for the poorest communities in the country. It was a massive exercise in redistribution that as socialists we should be very proud of.”
We had a decade of economic growth where long-term unemployment was squeezed down to levels last seen in the 1960s.
We made pensioner poverty a thing of the past.
We opened up higher education to nearly half the population.
Educational attainment and health indicators all rose, crime fell.
When the global economic crash struck we didn’t respond with austerity, we responded with classical Keynesian demand-management, boosting infrastructure investment, local council, school and NHS spending to record levels.
We all had things we disagreed with. For me it was an approach to public services that put too much faith in marketisation. For many it was Iraq – but we should remember that was born of idealistic hubris, not malignancy, a belief that we could overthrow fascist dictatorships and install humane liberal democracies in the world’s trouble spots.
But overall, you can keep your big rallies with mediocre speakers, you can keep your Twitter storms and social media abuse, you can keep your 16 per cent Tory poll leads and spitting at CLP AGMs, you can keep your blind-eye to antisemitism and your fetishising of dodgy Latin American regimes and Middle Eastern terror groups, you can keep your snappy slogans and absence of policy, you can keep your mass recruitment of passive clictivists to stack internal elections, you can keep your elevation of a faction above a 116-year old party that founded the NHS.
Call me old-fashioned but I prefer retro Labour from 20 years ago as my model of what a “social movement” or a political party should look like.
Come back and let me know when you achieve half the real socialism, the real change in working people’s lives we achieved just on Hackney Council, let alone across the UK.