A History of Factionalism

Chris Smith writes an excellent piece on the history of factionalism within the Labour Party.

Labour members joining the recent video call with the new leadership were not surprised to find a question on how to deal with factionalism making its way into the brief outlining of the leadership’s prioritise. The tone of Rayner and Starmer that those who had engaged in vicious factionalism within the party had not just let themselves and the party down but had also let down all those in Britain who need a Labour government suggested that sober attention will be devoted to the issue. This was of course before the leaking of the internal documents around anti-Semitism investigations and behaviour of office staffers hit the headlines revealing vicious factionalism to be a more institutionalised issue than those outside central office realised. Any political party having lost a fourth election is bound to be racked by introspection over purpose but Labour’s latest travails, after a leadership contest noticeable for its blandness on the issue of party direction, raise more fundamental questions. Namely is factionalism a part of Labours institutional DNA destined to always need careful managing, from which party history can provide some guidance?

A brief history of Labour leaders suggests it is party nature to be beset by factions. Since 1945 only three men have delivered Labour general election victories a fact made rather more depressing if we consider that despite the vastly different worlds in which they were competing for power the internal party challenges they faced appear the same. Clement Atlee was plotted against directly by cabinet ministers from “the right” who in 1947 come so far as to directly confront the PM himself over the matter of his resignation after devaluing the currency. Whist from “the Left” the entire government received almost constant criticism for abandoning socialism led by Aneurin Bevan founder of the NHS no less. This point is of particular significance given how post 2010 predating the rise of Corbynism but undoubtedly contributing to it the driving narrative of the Labour party has been that it needs to rediscover the radicalism of the Atlee government since betrayed. Evidenced by comments across the party equating New Labours 13 years with the Thatcher years in remarks about “40 years of neo liberalism”. In one sense it is amusing to wonder what Nye Bevan would have made of these affairs where a government he himself didn’t consider socialist enough to now be looked to as a standard to aspire to and most frequently so by those sympathetic to his legacy. More worrying is to head the analysis of Professor Vernon Bogdanor that 1945 was a victory Labour has never recovered from.

A recent reading of Ben Pimlotts’s excellent biography of Harold Wilson highlights the continuities of labour factionalism in how Labours second election winner’s governments were contemporarily bemoaned as missed opportunities domestically particularly from what became the Bennite Left in the same manner that Bevan criticised the Atlee years. Whilst Wilson personally like Blair after him exemplifies the bedevilment over power v principles with both leaders condemned for possessing none of the later and willing to do anything to achieve the former (from both right and left it should be said). Foreign policy most astonishingly to the modern eye shows this. Wilson suffered accusations of cronyism for his refusal to commit British troops to the American war in Vietnam just as Blair would do over his following of the USA into Iraq. The left criticised him for not denouncing the war, which he did not do for the practical reasons that Britain relied upon US financial support and endangering it would bring down the Labour government. The right criticised him for not supporting fully our “special” friends. Once again I hope we can appreciate the irony of how by the 2003 debates of Blair’s involvement in the war on terror Wilson’s legacy was now revered for his socialist anti-imperialist courage in standing up to the US in a way many could only wish Blair had done.

New Labour has been dismissed as having been in office but not in power due to its rewriting of Labour’s clause four and numerous other “socialist” values just like Atlee and Wilson. On Clause Four though I hope to illustrate the futility of factionalism and the perhaps naive hope that Labour can reconcile itself to that cliché that we have more that unites us than divides. The great slogan of the 2017 election “for the many not the few” of course comes from the Blairite Clause Four. The same clause the left of party denounced as the ultimate symbol of New Labour surrender was proudly repeated and reprinted across a Labour movement that by 2017 had spent a decade condemning its author.

I don’t want this to be an attack on factions, as I am of the view we are always going to have them and therefore it is counterproductive to electing a Labour government to indulge in this. However, I hope from the realisation that they have beguiled leaders of vary different political natures we can reconcile ourselves to the view that if Labour is to win it needs all of the talents within its wide movement and it needs them to realise we are a family and behave as such in resolving differences. No leader it seems can be left wing enough for the party or right wing enough for those outside it. What they can be is competent, decent and genuine and trust to the better nature of humans to respect that. As socialist of whatever kind are we not united by such a positive view of human nature? If you want proof this standard is achievable read how Margaret Thatcher praised Clemet Atlee in her memoirs as a great patriot and leader. Or how Nye Bevan, dismissed as demagogue by many used his last ever conference speech to describe any division between fundamentalists and pragmatists as a false one. If the party must obsess with rediscovering any past radicalism let it be that.

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