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Britain’s Left Is Back on the Offensive

Margaret Thatcher crushed the British labor movement and pushed the Left into a deep identity crisis. But today, socialism is back on the agenda — and Labour has the chance to impose a new political consensus.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn poses beside candidate Mark McDonald after speaking to supporters at Fenton Town Hall on November 22, 2019 in Stoke on Trent, England. Anthony Devlin / Getty

When he was a young man, a friend of mine drove a carful of people down to Birmingham to join the miners’ picket lines. In winter 1972, the miners had gone on the offensive against the Tory government over their stagnant wages, in a display of militancy that sharply polarized British society. When one striking miner, Freddie Matthews, was killed on the pickets by a scab lorry driver, Labour MP Tom Swain told Parliament that the strike was “the start of another Ulster in the Yorkshire coalfield,” warning that if the government did not respond to the murder, he would “advocate violence” on the dead man’s behalf. A secret government report showed just how much the Tories feared the workers, portending that “If this sort of attitude is pressed too far, the social consequences are unpredictable.”

The situation was tense — and the authorities were on edge. As my friend drove toward the picket line with his comrades, a group of policemen pulled them over. But while they were being questioned, the car’s tires were mysteriously slashed, leaving them stranded. The police told them it “wasn’t in their powers” to help them continue their onward journey. As a cocky young radical, my comrade told the policeman: “Things are going to be very different between us when we get in charge.” The policeman retorted, just as confidently — “What makes you think we won’t get in charge first?”

Indeed, when Andrew Murray — today a senior figure in Unite the Union, advisor to Jeremy Corbyn, and folk-devil of the liberal media — became politically active in the 1970s, the British left was politically unrecognizable compared to what it is today. We get a sense of this in his rich new book, The Fall and Rise of the British Left, charting the astonishing changes that have marked the political left — and wider labor movement — over the last four decades.

Socialists With Clout

Looking back to his youth, Murray reminds us of a time when the Left had high expectations of itself. In the 1970s serious socialists such as Tony Benn and Eric Heffer were figures of governmental clout, heavyweights wrangling with the British state over their plans for workers’ control of industry. The unions were also a major force — the annual Trades Union Congress was broadcast live on the BBC, and senior trade unionists such as Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon, and Jim Slater were household names. In both industrial and political spheres, the Left exuded self-confidence in confronting the capitalist class and hoped it could eventually consolidate its power.

Internationally, things were also “going our way.” The US empire was bruised by its defeat at the hands of peasant guerrillas in Vietnam, and the architects of apartheid in South Africa, wounded by their losses in Angola, were also frightened of renewed black struggle on home turf. Meanwhile the British left stood firm against what became the European Union — recognizing it as a capitalist integration project that would create institutional safeguards against socialist policies. The Left was clear what its alternative was — and sure that serious victories lay within reach.

But if this was the picture in the first few years of Murray’s activity, the tables soon turned. After James Callaghan’s Labour government proved unable to chart a route out of Britain’s prolonged economic crisis, it was slung out of office in 1979 by a radical Tory Party, committed to overthrowing the postwar social consensus and enabling a new age of opportunity for bankers, housing developers, and arms manufacturers. Meanwhile, the Labour left’s vision of the irreversible democratization of party, state, and society was defeated by a vicious, organizationally serious Labour right. Worse news came when Thatcher confronted the miners in 1984–85, crushing a fortress of British trade unionism. This was not just a loss for the miners — large swathes of society took it as a personal defeat.

Faced with these setbacks, Labour did not hold firm. Rather, the party slowly committed itself to furthering the interests of market forces, treating the labor movement as an embarrassing grandparent at best. In this same period, the Soviet Union — a society Murray considers marked by both “enormous self-sacrifice [and] extraordinary self-mutilation” — began to crumble. In a Thatcherite Britain defined by forced deindustrialization, mass unemployment, and grotesque inequality, it seemed like the Left was unable to do more than fight rearguard battles. As Murray puts it, “the future in millions of dreams was fast becoming the past.”

Murray describes with great sensitivity these reversals for the Left, as well as a sense of fragmentation which still lingers today. He describes heroic moments of struggle such as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the women who protested nukes at Greenham Common, and the first examples of black self-organization.

Yet he also draws attention to the New Left’s abandonment of class politics, here echoing socialist-feminist Sheila Rowbotham’s recent description of how the 1960s left’s values of “solidarity and caring have been replaced with ideas of individual rights rather than ones of collectivity and the possibility of creating a different society.” Unsparing with self-criticism of the traditional left, Murray enticingly proposes the need to unite both the “old” class politics with the pluralism brought by the “new” movements.

British Communism

However, the stakes of Murray’s account are far from limited to the 1980s. Indeed, his discussion of Thatcher-era defeats leads him to a thoughtful engagement with the legacy of Leninism. We might have expected this — after all, Murray was a long-standing Communist militant before he joined Labour in 2016. These past attachments have, nonetheless, sparked controversy.

Paul Mason has been especially withering in his criticism, even blaming Murray (rather than sensible electoral concerns) for Corbyn’s refusal to pursue a blustering pro-Remain position even after the 2016 Brexit referendum. The former journalist further took this as a cue to damn British communism for its “unerring ability to destroy every political project it touches.”

Used to being reviled in establishment media, Murray laughs off such criticism. He concedes that the claim of communist perfidy is “perfectly true” so long as one

[S]ets to one side “Hands Off Russia”, the Hunger Marches, the International Brigades in Spain, the resistance to Mosley fascism at Cable Street, the Second Front campaign, the opening of tube stations during the Blitz, the London squatters’ movement, the Movement for Colonial Freedom, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, the UCS sit-in, the anti-apartheid movement (including sending activists undercover to South Africa), the 1972 miners’ strike, the Stop the War Coalition, the survival of the Morning Star as a daily newspaper …

Rebuffing anticommunist attack lines, Murray is not shy about recognizing the many wrongs of the Soviet model — but also highlights the political malaise that resulted from its collapse, “trumpeted worldwide as the clearest signal possible that socialism was a failure.” For Murray, whatever one’s view of the Soviet Union, its demise and the resulting neoliberal triumphalism was keenly felt across the entire left.

Rise

Murray’s book is anything but a lament for “better days” that now lie in the past — instead, it shows the sources of the Left’s advances in the present. Even as he surveys the dark times for the Left in the 1990s and 2000s, Murray poignantly describes the resistance to capitalist globalization and warmongering — a political revolt that grew out of the system’s barbaric excesses.

As a leader of the enormous international opposition to the Iraq War in 2003, Murray is expertly placed to describe what some called Britain’s largest mass movement since the Chartists’ fight for democracy in the nineteenth century.

More recent years have seen green shoots of recovery also at the level of mass party politics. For Murray, the “particular union of mass movements” that characterized the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century proved crucial to the later development of Corbynism. Indeed, he identifies the mass energies of the Stop the War Coalition as a “test run” for the diverse, often unsteady coalitions that twice elected the Islington North MP as Labour leader in 2015 and 2016. As Murray succinctly puts it: “If Corbyn stands on the threshold of Downing Street today, it is because he stood on the stage in Hyde Park back in 2003.”

This observation has, strangely, escaped commentators across the political spectrum — indeed, Murray’s book is uniquely insightful in its appraisal of both the prospects and limitations facing the Corbyn project. With a touch of the knowing humor that is strewn throughout his book, Murray steals the political verbiage of Blairism to indicate a “third way” for the Left, one that avoids not only capitulation to establishment pressure, but also the risk of unwinnable confrontations with the state — or, as he puts it, the scenario where “we all get shot.”

Indeed, given the likely precariousness of a future left-wing government’s grip on power, Murray suggests that the Left must be strategic in preparing the political ground to its own advantage. Only this can provide for the future confrontations that could emerge in a genuine break with capitalism. For now, this means hammering home the core objective of the Corbyn project — to structurally and ideologically delegitimize rampant neoliberalism.

Strategic Proposal

Murray himself suggests how we can cut the roots of neoliberalism and privatization, in particular by taking away the market’s influence over core aspects of people’s lives. Exemplary here is the case of the National Health Service (NHS), an institution which liberal welfare strategist William Beveridge once derided as a “a free universal service on communist lines,” but which is today the subject of the British public’s near-universal affections. Murray argues that a Corbyn government should aim to extend the NHS’s humanist and not-for-profit principles to fields such as housing, public transport, and everything else needed for a “decent life.”

In fighting for such principles, Murray also calls for the complete reconstitution of British trade unionism, sweeping away the anti-trade union laws introduced from Thatcher onwards. Indeed, while union membership has seen a modest rise in the last two years, Britain’s labor movement remains the most restricted in Western Europe. This was evidenced by the Communication Workers’ Union’s recent ballot of its members, a thoughtful and dynamic campaign that delivered a fulsome vote for strike action at Royal Mail. Despite the mass “Yes” vote, postal workers were knocked back by the High Court, which used the Tories’ 2016 Trade Union Act to rule that the CWU’s positive campaign was a form of sedition.

Pointing to the sheer powerlessness that millions feel, the arrogance of unharnessed employers, and the “disarticulation of the working-class voice in public policy and debates,” Murray thus raises a call for the rebuilding of working-class power. This indeed, is the work that needs doing in parallel to the fight to tear the hands of the rich off our essential public amenities. This is a strategy, as the author charmingly puts it, of “trade unionism plus the decommodification of necessity.”

Powerful Resistance

The book leaves some questions unanswered — one of which is coming to the surface even as we speak. A Labour victory in December 12’s general election would surely be met with immediate, brutal opposition from the City of London, Donald Trump’s America, the House of Lords, the permanent civil service, the judiciary, the monarchy, and, indeed, the swathes of hostile forces in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), which Corbynism has failed to move against decisively.

Given this array of opponents, it remains to be seen how, or if, Corbynism can counteract the pressure it faces. While the number of left-wingers in the PLP has increased, they do not yet represent a bloc which can be relied on to force through Corbynism’s agenda. It also remains to be seen whether the party will use potentially powerful institutions such as Young Labour — a resource that, unlike most left-wing youth organizations internationally, has never been properly resourced by the party — and Momentum, an excellent internal organizing body that has fallen far short in the desperately needed task of politically educating Labour members.

However, just as Corbynism itself is an unexpected and in ways ramshackle phenomenon, perhaps these questions will only really be answered when they are brought into relief by outside pressures. In the meantime, The Fall and Rise of the British Left offers us a rich and needed intervention into the mass movement currently pushing for a humane society in Britain.

For socialists who had the luck to avoid the pre-Corbyn era, Murray’s book will provide a lesson in how the Left sank into marginality and weakness. Whatever happens after the election, enough left-wingers are now structurally rooted in Labour to make sure that the demand for an irreversible transformation of society won’t be going away anytime soon. Books like this will only strengthen an already concrete resolve to make sure that the program for real change is here to stay. So here’s to trade unionism, plus the decommodification of necessity in our lifetimes.