Whatever Happened to Labour’s Legitimate Left?

Historically the Labour party has had a left and a right wing with the latter usually in the ascendancy. Much of that was down to the trade unions being led by moderates who were happy to use their block votes at Labour conference and in elections to the ruling National Executive Committee in favour of a leadership committed to a social democratic programme. In the immediate post-war period the leaders of the major unions (the Transport workers, Engineers, Miners and Railway workers) all had much more in common with Methodism than Marx. The landslide General Election victory of 1945 brought to power a majority Labour government for the first time and although its MPs sang the red flag in the commons the reality was that Attlee’s administration was a reforming not a revolutionary one.

At the time some thought that with its overwhelming parliamentary majority Labour would be in power for a long time but it was not to be. A cabinet which included left wingers Cripps and Bevan stayed united for a time seeing through a number of nationalisations and the creation of a National Health Service but in 1950 the crunch came. It was then that the decision to introduce charges for NHS prescriptions and eyeglasses to fund involvement in the Korean war led to the resignation of Bevan and a young Harold Wilson from the cabinet. From then on Nye, as he was affectionally known by his supporters, started to position himself as leader of the left.

It was, however, a left that believed in a parliamentary route to socialism, attempts by pro-communist elements to influence the party were dealt with decisively without any protest from Bevan and his allies. Electoral defeat in 1951 was followed by a sustained period of internal civil war but it was the right who won with Hugh Gaitskell succeeding Attlee as leader and Bevan giving up the fight returning to the shadow cabinet following his high profile renunciation of unilateralism at the 1957 conference, eventually becoming Deputy Leader shortly before his death from cancer.

Gaitskell who also died prematurely was succeeded by Wilson who by then had also made peace with the Labour establishment. Wilson got the leys to number 10 after thirteen years of Tory rule in 1964 and like Attlee he included in his cabinet key left wingers. In the 1960s infiltration by communists had given way to similar tactics by the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League which had got control of the party’s youth section. They were expelled en masse with the approval of a certain Tony Benn then a newish member of the NEC. By 1970 Labour was out of office and Michael Foot emerged as the prominent figure on the left of the party.

The issue that divided the party now was Europe and it was only because of some clever footwork by Wilson that a split was avoided. However the 1974-79 Labour government was a failure and as the 1980s beckoned the left was stronger than ever. It was then that a different kind of standard-bearer emerged. Unlike his predecessors, Tony Benn was happy to have the extra parliamentary left amongst his supporters and raised no objections to the involvement of groups like the Militant tendency. In fact, he and his key supporters vigorously resisted calls for them to be excluded from the party. In 1981 when Benn challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership it was a third candidate John Silkin who declared himself the man from the legitimate left.

Benn lost and one of Silkins supporters Neil Kinnock eventually assumed to the party leadership. Kinnock took action against the Militant and moderated the policy programme but the tradition he came from was becoming extinct. His successor Blair transformed the party pushing the left out to the margins but those who stayed were of a different breed. The surprise election of Corbyn in 2015 brought the left to power but it was a new kind of left. Jeremy’s likely lads and lasses are veteran Bennites whose commitment to democratic values are at best questionable. Trotskyist groups have been welcomed back into the fold and parliamentary opponents targetted for removal through reselection.

The legitimate left within Labour has been consigned to history. That presents our party with an opportunity. The vast majority of Labour voters are looking for a centre-left alternative to this cruel Tory government.

It is our party the Liberal Democrats who can provide that.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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  • David Evershed 15th May '19 - 10:55am

    I thought Liberals didn’t define themselves as left or right but by being libertarian and anti authoritarian.

    In practical terms “freedom from” and “freedom to” is what Liberal policies should be about.

  • Peter Martin 15th May '19 - 11:19am

    “The legitimate left within Labour has been consigned to history.”

    The Labour Left are only ever considered legitimate in a historical context. At the time they are always portrayed as subversive and anti-democratic. Lib Dems probably disagreed with Tony Benn, for example, but you can’t fault his commitment to Parliamentary democracy.

    Attlee’s govt nationalised around 25% of the UK economy, introduced the welfare state and the NHS. You can’t do that and expect the Tories to say nice things about you! At least not until after you’re safely dead and buried!

    “The vast majority of Labour voters are looking for a centre-left alternative to this cruel Tory government.”

    Are they really? So why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better? Why is ChUK a flop? The situation throughout the EU is pretty much the same. The centre left are losing working class votes as they are perceived to be more a part of the problem than the solution.


  • Left wing political thinking is inherently authoritarian, so it shouldnt come as any surprise that left wing parties lurch off to authoritarian ways. This is of relevance to the Lib Dems, because the driving force of the party move towards more and more authoritarian stances seems to entirely come from the left/”social liberal” sections of the party

  • Sue Sutherland 15th May '19 - 12:55pm

    Would John Pugh please give us more detail on the way the party is becoming more authoritarian. This is important for our success as a party. I would say that the extremes of left and right wing politics always result in the extreme authoritarianism that is a dictatorship but I haven’t noticed such tendencies in our party. I really don’t understand what you are saying John except that perhaps this is a dig at the SLF?

  • Sue Sutherland 15th May '19 - 12:58pm

    I’m so sorry James for getting your name wrong.

  • Yet another LDV thread pointing out the’ terrors’ of a Corbyn government which, to anyone who takes the time to look at his manifesto is to the ‘right’ (how I hate this ‘left/right’ nonsense) of Atlee and more akin to mainstream European governments.

    As Peter Martin writes, “The Labour Left are only ever considered legitimate in a historical context. At the time they are always portrayed as subversive and anti-democratic.”
    A couple of days ago there was a glowing eulogy of John Smith (a man with policies to the left of Tony Blair,; had he still been with us, or even if he’d been PM, no such praise would’ve come from this party. Caron wrote of her ‘praying that Thatcher won the 1979 election’; had Thatcher fallen down the steps of No.10 after her St. Francis of Assisi speech (how he must have cringed in heaven hearing his words spoken by that woman) what praise would have our imagination conjured up.

    It isn’t the ‘left’ that has made this country one of the least the least equal in the world. (before someone explains how it’s a Tory administration’s fault…In May 2015, after 5 years of LibDem input, the UK already had the worst equality record in Europe and, with a GINI index rating of 0.404, was fractionally more unequal than even the US.)

  • John Marriott 15th May '19 - 2:51pm

    It left. I thought that, after the collapse of Communism, we were all capitalists now.

  • chris moore 15th May '19 - 2:57pm

    expats 15th May ’19 – 1:44pm “A couple of days ago there was a glowing eulogy of John Smith (a man with policies to the left of Tony Blair,; had he still been with us, or even if he’d been PM, no such praise would’ve come from this party.”

    In fact, there were good relations between Lib Dem leaders and John Smith – including friendships – before his untimely death, with some hopes of closer co-operation between the parties.

    I think such hopes would have proved unrealistic. however. John Smith was a relatively tribal politiican compared to Tony Blair.

  • chris moore 15th May '19 - 3:13pm

    expats 15th May ’19 – 1:44pm “It isn’t the ‘left’ that has made this country one of the least the least equal in the world. (before someone explains how it’s a Tory administration’s fault…In May 2015, after 5 years of LibDem input, the UK already had the worst equality record in Europe and, with a GINI index rating of 0.404, was fractionally more unequal than even the US.)”

    I’m not sure where you’re sourcing your figures.

    This is what the Equality Trust says about the UK Gini co-efficient.

    “Inequality in Recent Years
    Since the early 1990s, changes in inequality have been less dramatic than the change from 1979 to 1991. After falling slightly over the early to mid-1990s, inequality, as shown by the Gini coefficient, reached a new peak of 0.358 in 2009–10. Inequality fell in 2010 and has stayed relatively level since.”

    BTW the UK has by some way a more equal Gini co-efficient than the US, which comes in around the 0.45 mark.

    But the UK is less equal than the European average; though certain countries have a higher Gini coefficient.

  • nvelope2003 15th May '19 - 3:18pm

    Peter Martin: The New Statesman article is a year old. In recent European elections the Social Democrat parties in Finland and particularly Spain have made advances and in Spain Podemos has fallen back and the right is divided and weakened with the hard right falling below expectations, though the Centre has advanced. In England the Liberal Democrats – a Social Democrat party – made the strongest showing for many years in the recent local elections, exceeding most predictions.
    ChUK made a big mistake in spurning an alliance with other Centre Left parties and may have shot its bolt. We shall have to wait until the result of the European Parliament elections to see what happens but their candidate in Scotland has withdrawn in favour of the Liberal Democrats.

    It is probably true that the Social Democrats have lost support among the working class especially in places where they have formed coalitions with Conservative parties such as Germany, the UK (Lib Dems) and Greece where Pasok collapsed but in Britain and Germany this seems to be because many of their supporters seem to dislike the pro immigration, pro EU and socially progressive stance of the centre left and have reverted to a modern version of jingoism which loves people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage and even the pre war rulers of Germany and Italy.

  • chris moore 15th May ’19 – 3:13pm
    expats ……………………………I’m not sure where you’re sourcing your figures……………

    From the ‘Independent’ article of 18th May 2015 quoting the Dublin Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

  • Paul Barker 15th May '19 - 4:06pm

    Right from its foundation Labour has been home to 3 broad tendencies : Revolutionaries, Reformists & small c conservatives; for most of the time the conservatives were the majority or at least the dominant force. The 1945 administration were far less Radical than Labour mythology makes out, many of the changes simply formalised arrangements that had developed under the War Economy; it was the Tories who argued for a return to Peacetime arrangements. Labour were very enthusiastic about keeping Rationing & Identity Cards for example.

    Probably the first Wilson Government of the 1960s was the closest Labour ever got to being Reformist but a lot of that was down individuals like Roy Jenkins.
    The first Blair administration of 1997-2001 was also mildly Reformist, if Blair had been thrown out in 2001 we would remember him & New Labour very differently.
    The current Labour Leadership are Revolutionaries masquerading as Reformists when it suits them, they have actually had far more fights with the Reformists/Soft Left than with the Old Labour Right.
    To answer the question in the Headline, The Legitimate Labour Left have been defeated again & again. Various Revolutionary & Faux-Revolutionary groups have taken over the major Unions, the Executive & many Local Parties; they still have the support of a majority of the active membership even now & seem likely to keep it.

  • Paul Barker 15th May ’19 – 4:06pm……… they still have the support of a majority of the active membership even now & seem likely to keep it………….

    WOW! A party that actually reflects the majority view of its members…If only another party had done the same between 2010-15

  • nvelope2003 15th May '19 - 5:16pm

    expats: that can be a two edged sword – as many traditional supporters have abandoned the Labour party as have gone over to it and canvassers report mass desertions, often to Nigel Fage and the Brexit Party, because of its equivocal stand on major issues. The mistake the Liberal Democrats made, like the Greek Pasok and Austrian and German Social Democrats was joining a coalition with Conservatives though to be fair there was not much alternative here because of the numbers and the serious situation when it would have been seen as evading responsibility not to have at least supported the Government on some issues, but not quite so many. However after the good local election results and if there is a good result on May 23rd and a by election victory soon recovery seems possible. Sticking to the party’s long term policy on Europe seems to have finally paid off and Vince Cable has attracted a lot of support for his measured and rational responses to often tiresome and immature questioning. Good old Vince. Just stick to the policies though !

  • nvelope2003 15th May ’19 – 5:16pm………….expats: that can be a two edged sword – as many traditional supporters have abandoned the Labour party as have gone over to it and canvassers report mass desertions, often to Nigel Fage and the Brexit Party, because of its equivocal stand on major issues………………

    ONE major issue. You seem to ignore the fact that 30% of this party voted ‘Leave’ and one of the remaining MPs supports May’s deal. How many of these voters will go to Farage?

    As for your ‘if’ about the EU elections; the latest polls have Labour (at 24%) still polling over twice that of this party.

    I’ll wager Labour will endorse a second referendum. Anyone bet against?

  • Jayne Mansfield 15th May '19 - 7:12pm

    @ expats,
    I am not a betting woman, but i am a hopeful one.

    It the Labour leadership does endorse a second referendum because the Conservative party are unprepared to compromise, there will be no need for Labour remainers to ‘lend’ their votes to other parties for this particular election.

  • nvelope2003 15th May '19 - 9:22pm

    expats: I do not bet – seen too many people ruined by it. I just saw a poll Brexit 26 Labour 22 Liberal Democrat 19 Conservative 12 Green 10 Change 4 UKIP 3 Other 3. It is in line with other polls for the European Election but all contain differences. None will get it exactly right. I guess we will just have to wait for the count on Sunday 26th May. Yes I expect the Labour Party will endorse a referendum but many will have already voted by post and others might think it was too late in the day.
    No doubt former Liberal Democrat voters have already decided to vote for Mr Farage’s Brexit party and their support will have been included in the poll figures. I am puzzled why a Leaver would vote Liberal as the party has supported the EU since the 1950s. If they can support it for all that time they might go on voting for it. It is time for a bit of hope, not an endless period of gloom and despondency.

  • David Evershed 16th May '19 - 1:41am


    Note that the EU did not exist in the 1950s.

    The EEC started in 1957 although the Uk did not join until 1973.

    The EU came into being in Nov 1993.

    There has been a gradual transfer of powers over time from the UK to what is now the EU.

  • Nvelope2003
    Re Europe
    Because people can be liberals despite not agreeing with every policy. All political parties need to have a broad spectrum of voters to get elected in any meaningful numbers. Liberal’s pride themselves on not wanting to see people enslaved by conformity. So it would be somewhat ironic, not say contradictory, if the Lib Dems insisted that voters stuck to the party line and had to be “true” liberals or something. Sort of a “we’re not tribal. Cast out the unbeliever. Better still let not the unbeliever even support us in any way for they are the enemy” kind of a message!

  • Richard Underhill 16th May '19 - 8:10am

    David Evershed 16th May ’19 – 1:41am
    The EEC’s predecessors were focussed on preventing repetition of the wars commencing in 1870, 1914 and 1939. For instance combining the iron and steel industries was a radical step taken to try to make wars impossible. At the time France was not a nuclear power. Germany is not now a nuclear power.

  • Mick Taylor 16th May '19 - 8:10am

    David Evershed. Pre 1957 there was the iron and steel community which became the EEC. Liberals thought we should Jon that as well. So it is correct to refer to the fifties as other commentators have done.

  • Jayne Mansfield 15th May ’19 – 7:12pm
    @ expats,…………..I am not a betting woman, but i am a hopeful one…………….

    Me, too. Sadly, this party (nad especially this site) seem to spend most of it’s effort on trying to pick arguments with Labour.
    Most have absolutely no interest in reading beyond personal headlines about Corbyn. I support (as does most of the country) taking back public control of rail, utilities, etc. After all, even under this government, when a franchise fails the taxpayer picks up the pieces before Tory doctrine demands the private sector is given another go to fail again. Building council homes-Labour…..Solar panels- Labour…The list goes on…What’s not to like?
    Grayling, that one-man disaster area, has seen everything he touches turn to rust and yet it seems he is unsackable. How many LDV articles point out his daily disasters?

    Nvelope2003…Re Europe…

    Contrary to the views of some on here one doesn’t have to be stupid to have reservations over the EU; 30% of LibDems I’ve met aren’t idiots. Anyway, if stupidity is the sole reason for worrying about a future within the EU the, from today’s ‘Guardian’ the majority of our European neighbours fall into that category….”Majority of Europeans expect end of EU within 20 years”.

    As Glenn writes, supporting every policy is not a requirement for picking a party.

  • nvelope2003 16th May '19 - 2:47pm

    David Evershed: The move to bigger units has been going on for centuries – the unification first of England, then Britain, Spain, Germany and Italy. Thank you Richard Underhill and Mick Taylor.

    Glenn: I did not say that all Liberals should support remaining in the EU – just surprised that 30% of supporters were opposed to a policy which has been central to the party since the 1950s. I agree with what you say otherwise.

    expats: I am not dogmatically opposed to nationalisation but one Government controlled system would prevent the sort of improvements that competition can bring about especially if we had another Mr Grayling and his hopelessly ill prepared civil servants. I do not sneer at Mr Corbyn and agree with much of what he says except for his out dated economic ideas. I did not say that Leavers were stupid for having reservations about the EU because I have them too but prefer to remain after considering the alternatives. Without Britain inside it there will be a risk of war.

  • nvelope2003 16th May '19 - 3:27pm

    expats: Only the East Coast franchise failed and that was because the operator offered too much for the right to run the service so the taxpayer did not have to pick up any pieces and no passengers were inconvenienced. The system failed because it was controlled by the Government which insisted on impossible conditions yet you want the whole rail network run like that – why ?
    Grayling is a disaster but not every day. The party does not continually criticise Labour but we are entitled to offer alternative views. Your continual, even daily, exaggerations undermine your case. I am not sure why all these Labour supporters want to post on Liberal Democrat Voice but I suppose we should feel flattered. I occasionally look at Labour List and Conservative Home which are both very boring but I do not post on them. There are plenty of places – newspapers and other media – which are full of news about other parties but you want to annoy us on one of the few places we have – why ?

  • “Only the East Coast franchise failed and that was because the operator offered too much”.

    The East Coast failed twice – but, come off it. Are you saying Branson and Soutar are naive businessmen ? They just weren’t very good at it. And Virgin are about to lose the West Coast franchise (notable for telling people not to put goldfish down the pan !!)

    As a very regular user of LNER between Scotland, York and London, I must say the service has vastly improved in a number of ways – but don’t let the facts get in the way of right wing prejudice.

  • Opinion poll, Sky News, 2018 :

    A clear majority of the public support nationalising British railways, an exclusive Sky Data poll has revealed. Some 60% of Britons support bringing the country’s rail network back into public ownership, while 20% oppose it. Nine percent were neutral, while 11% answered ‘don’t know’.

    You’re in a minority, Mr. Envelope.

  • Katharine Pindar 16th May '19 - 6:28pm

    nvelope 2003. I hope you are right in declaring boldly that we are a Social Democrat party. Chuka Umunna threw our record in Coalition at us, when suggesting why he can’t support us, and we have had Neo-Con posts still occurring on this site from time to time.

    Glenn,l it isn’t tribal to think it will be good for the EU as well as for us if some Lib Dem MEPs are elected next Thursday. We don’t need to attack other parties, certainly, but we can reasonably try and persuade the Remain voters to turn out and vote for us.

  • David Warren 16th May '19 - 9:40pm

    Pleased that the article has generated such a healthy and wide ranging debate.

    Todays Labour Party really only has two wings the heirs of Blairism and the hard left.

    The old Tribunite left is a thing of the past just at the time when it is arguably the most needed.

  • nvelope2003 17th May '19 - 9:38am

    David Raw: Opinion polls are interesting especially when their figures suit our own views. I understand that most people want the death penalty for murder reinstated therefore I assume that you would support this based on your statements above.

    The East Coast failed twice for the same reason. The two firms overbid. They are not naive but the whole point of business is to take a calculated risk and sometimes they get it wrong. I worked on tenders and there was a great deal of pressure to get the contract, not at any cost but you want to win against the competition. Normally this benefits the public and it did in the case of the East Coast because the taxpayer received bigger premiums for as long as the franchisees had to operate. LNER is now in the public sector and I think it should stay there because competition does not just mean between two private firms but between different systems and that is a good Liberal theme. Everything must be considered and nothing ruled out as you seem to want in the case of private business. Now I think the idea of using private firms to run the probation service or the entire NHS is misguided but there do need to be trials on a limited basis because the present system does have some problems and alternatives have to be looked at. Of course you and other Socialists will disagree because you have fixed dogmatic ideas which can never change and that is your right like the fundamentalist religious people.

  • nvelope2003 17th May '19 - 9:47am

    David Warren: I think the old Tribunite left is alive and well and living on Liberal Democrat Voice – just see the posts above !

    David Raw: It will be interesting to see the result of the legal actions being taken by train operators against the D f T because of their prescriptive terms and conditions for franchises. I have not heard anyone say they did not give a good service on the routes they ran but there will always be disaffected staff however well managed a firm is. My experience of school teachers is that they did not have a clue about running a business.

  • Richard Underhill 17th May '19 - 10:51am

    nvelope2003 17th May ’19 – 9:38am
    Margaret Thatcher voted for what she called capital punishment, but the Home Secretary of the day spoke and voted against what could be called Judicial execution, legalised murder. Part of the argument is about miscarriages of justice, including forensic evidence caused by the use of playing cards, but it is better to start with the principal principles.
    The state had these powers because they were asserted by previous tyrants such as King Henry VIII or under the divine right of kings, which did not prevent the execution of King Charles I for treason.
    Margaret Thatcher appointed a Home Secretary who she thought would agree with her view, but she lost a Conservative party leadership election. She supported the election of John Major, who won a general election with a small majority and sent the Home Secretary to the Lords, causing a bye-election in Ribble Valley, contested mainly on the poll tax.

  • Richard Underhill: I did not say I supported capital punishment. I was pointing out that if we are to enact changes on the basis of opinion polls there would be some difficult precedents. These things need full consideration based on a proper study of all the facts not acting on the basis of newspaper articles or online views often expressed by people who have no real knowledge of all the facts and implications.

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