Searching for Socialism, The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn, by Colin Leys and Leo Panitch, London: Verso Books, 2020.
A review by Tony Richardson.
I was particularly interested in Searching for Socialism as my history is in parallel with that which is described in the book.
I was expelled from the Labour Party in 1964, as part of the Socialist Labour League’s ‘Keep Left’ group. So I am intrigued to follow what was going on inside the Labour Party, around the development in the early 1980s of the Benn movement and those around him, such as Jeremy Corbyn, and at that surprisingly early stage, Jon Lansmann.
Panitch says he first thought there was no possibility of transforming Labour into a force for socialist change, but after Corbyn’s election as leader of the party, he started to have second thoughts.
This book details the battles over policy, but perhaps more importantly over democracy in the Party. The latter was the hardest part because the PLP, particularly its leadership, constantly battled to make sure it had control over policy.
The more you read this book, the more you realise what an amazing thing it was that Corbyn won the election for Labour’s leadership. You see through the book the political and historical conditions that produced this victory.
First there was Tony Benn’s battles, often with big support in the membership. Lansman played a big part in these as secretary of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, and becoming Benn’s lieutenant. They fought against changes that took away powers from the conference of the LP. Although there were constant attempts to win back democratic rights for the conference, the right wing was taking more and more of it away.
The Blair years were the worst. The book shows that in the earliest stages the old union leaders constantly used their block votes to overrule the membership. But with big industrial struggles, there were some new union leaders who constantly found themselves in conflict with the Labour leadership.
The biggest changes came with Blair. He gave no concessions to the unions. This provided the right conditions for unions to eventually support Corbyn.
Then of course there were the New Labour economic policies, which were followed by austerity years after the crash of 2008.
In the meantime, Blair had taken complete control over the selection of MPs, and of course the appointment of Party staff. This meant that the Campaign Group of MPs had been drastically reduced, and was down to 10. Although they nominated John McDonnell for party leadership in 2007, McDonnell was unable to be on the ballot as Blair had changed the numbers of MPs required to nominate to 12.5% of the PLP, .
In the process of this, the general election campaign of 2010 led by Gordon Brown to get elected was a catastrophe and he lost 97 MPs with a historically low percentage of 29%. Labour lost more seat than with Corbyn in 2019. Then Labour lost of 60 seats although it got 33% of the vote. in his ‘worst performance since the 1930s. The book shows several periods of worst performances by labour such as 17% of the vote in London.
Miliband’s leadership failed to renew the party as he promised fiscal policies that would stick to the Tories’ budget. Unsurprisingly, the drop in membership continued.
The right wing in the party had slowly taken away the size of the unions block vote. They finally succeeded in getting one person one vote for the leadership election, but as a concession had allowed the union members an individual vote. This brought the change as people like McCluskey were able to mobilise big numbers to vote.
In the 2015 leadership election, Corbyn did not have quite enough nominations from his own supporters, but other MPs nominated him to widen the political debate without an expectation that he would win
Corbyn stood on an anti-austerity ticket. Masses of people then joined, or re-joined, the party to turn it into the biggest political party in Europe.
Unions supported Corbyn’s anti-austerity stance, as well as the new members. But most of the MPs were the selected Blairites, hence the votes of no confidence against him in the PLP. Similarly much of the staff were opposed to him and organised against him. When Corbyn created his own team of staff, McCluskey as general secretary of the biggest union, UNITE no doubt used his influence to have Jenny Formby as General Secretary. Unfortunately, Jon Lansman’s long history as a machine manipulator did cause problems to Momentum with its lack of democracy.
The conclusion of the book is that no left group has developed outside the LP, and as it is very difficult to change the party itself, you just have to rely on the young people who come out of the struggle. To be fair, the book does constantly go back to big struggles.
This is a book well worth reading to provide the background to understanding the development of Corbynism.