Tribune, 10 January 1992
The left in the Parliamentary Labour Party has rarely been a model of unity, but the past decade has seen it more divided than ever before. For more than nine years, there have been two parliamentary left factions, the “hard Left” Campaign Group, currently with around 30 members, and the “soft left” Tribune Group, now about 80 strong.
The split had its origins in deep differences over Tony Benn’s unsuccessful attempt to wrest Labour’s deputy leadership from Denis Healey in 1981. Twenty Tribune Group MPs voted for Healey or abstained in the second ballot, thus ensuring Benn’s defeat – and Benn’s supporters were outraged. Tensions within the Tribune Group, already high over attitudes to Michael Foot’s leadership of the party (Foot, a Tribune Group member himself, appointed 25 Tribune MPs to the front bench), reached breaking point over the party’s proposal, passed by the party conference in 1982, to establish a register of internal party pressure groups. In December 1982, 23 members of the PLP formally set up the Campaign Group as an alternative to the Tribune Group.
The story since then is familiar. The election of Neil Kinnock to the party leadership in 1983 was followed by a brief period in which there was much half-hearted talk of healing old wounds, but all that came to an abrupt end when Kinnock distanced himself from the 1984-85 miners’ strike. After that, the gulf between the hard and soft parliamentary Lefts grew ever larger as Kinnock gradually shifted Labour towards the political centre. The final straw was the policy review after the 1987 election defeat, culminating in the abandonment of unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1989. The Campaign Group rejected the whole process and denounced the leadership for finally dumping any commitment to socialism. Most of the Tribune Group went along with the policy changes, albeit grudgingly in some cases. Much the same division was visible during the Gulf crisis and subsequent war in 1990-91.
Today, the gap between the Tribune and Campaign Groups appears, at first sight, completely unbridgeable. Campaign politicians accuse the Tribune Group of being little more than a cheer-leader for Kinnock’s apostasy; Tribunite MPs accuse their Campaign colleagues of self-indulgent posturing. Hardly anyone in either camp is on reasonable terms with many colleagues from the other.
It is easy to see what both sides are getting at. The Tribune Group is undoubtedly more closely tied to the party leadership today than ever before: 45 of its members hold front bench posts, 14 of them in the Shadow Cabinet. Partly as a result, even left Tribunite MPs’ criticisms of the leadership have been muted and fragmentary. The Campaign Group, for its part, has been consigned to the margins of Labour politics and is simply ignored by party policy-makers and managers.
Unlikely as it may seem, however, change could be on the way. Over the past six months, the signs have multiplied that both parliamentary left camps are losing their coherence. Although no one expects any significant realignment in the period before the election, there is a small but growing number of left MPs who are beginning to wonder aloud whether the early-eighties split on the left is still going to be relevant a year hence.
One symptom of the breakdown of the coherence of the two groups has been a slump in participation in each. The Tribune Group, which used to hold well-attended weekly meetings, now meets on average once a month and attendance is sometimes down to four or five MPs. The Campaign Group meets more frequently but has also suffered a fall-off in numbers.
In the case of the Tribune Group, the decline has a lot to do with the imminence of a general election. As a result of the diversity of its members’ opinions and responsibilities, it has long since ceased to be more than an open discussion group, which many members long ago rejected on grounds of its openness, preferring more ad hoc invitation-only gatherings; now, with the election almost upon them, even those Tribune MPs who were turning up two years ago for a free and frank exchange of views reckon that there are more important priorities.
Labour’s election programme has already effectively been finalised and there is a general feeling, even among the group’s more left-wing members, that it would be a bad idea to do anything that might be perceived as rocking the boat before the election – mainly because MPs desperately want a Labour government, but partly because no one wants to be made a scapegoat if Labour loses.
Once the election is out of the way, says one Tribune Group backbencher, those MPs who don’t have front-bench jobs, either in government or in opposition, will be far more prepared to stick their heads above the parapet unless Labour has only a wafer-thin parliamentary majority. The unspoken implication is that a Tribune Group without front-benchers could once again be a rallying point for a left constructively critical of the Labour leadership. Campaign Group MPs are sceptical, arguing that the Tribune Group is bereft of ideas and that the chances of a revival are small in any circumstances simply because its membership is so tied up with the leadership. They could well be right, but that does not mean that the Campaign Group will benefit.
Indeed, the Campaign Group’s problems are as profound as the Tribune Group’s. If the Tribune Group has been incapacitated because so many of its members are so close to the teadership, the Campaign Group is suffering severely from the strains of exile. Set up to reassert old socialist verities, almost from the beginning it lost members who came to see it as either out of touch or a bar to personal advancement in the new model Labour Party or both. By 1988, it was down to a hard-left rump – but at least its supporters could console themselves with the thought that it was ideologically coherent: for nationalisation and planning, reflation and unilateral nuclear disarmament; against the European Community, Tory union laws and expulsions of Trotskyists from Labour.
Now, however, it is going through its first ever major ideological split, over Europe, and for the first time some MPs are asking whether the group will hold together after the election.
The split is at first sight hardly spectacular, amounting to little more than an agreement to disagree among Campaign MPs over a proposal late last year from Ken Livingstone, Harry Barnes and others to endorse “democratic federalism” for Europe. But put into context it becomes extremely significant.
The Labour left was in the forefront of opposition to British membership of the Common Market in the sixties and seventies, and it was largely as a result of Ieft pressure that Labour came to advocate withdrawal from the EC in the early eighties. The rationale was simple: the EC was a capitalist club, and British membership stood in the way of a Labour government implementing its Alternative Economic Strategy, in which import and exchange controls, devaluation and reflation would play key roles.
After 1983, Labour moved away from this position, initially advocating reform of the EC with withdrawal as an option and then, after 1987, embracing the EC with enthusiasm. One of the Campaign Group’s most consistent (and central) themes through the late eighties was opposition to this leadership U-turn. For Livingstone, Barnes et al to embrace the EC, even though they retain many of their criticisms, particularly of the waste of the Common Agricultural Policy, marks a profound change of direction.
What precisely it signifies in terms of a possible realignment of the parliamentary left is more difficult to judge. In a letter to the Guardian, Peter Hain, the Tribunite MP for Neath, welcomed the Barnes-Livingstone move and speculated: “It may be just as European integration is fashioning a new terrain for socialism, so it is forcing a realignment within Labour’s left.” Another left Tribunite with an eye on a post-election realignment of the parliamentary left says: “They’re coming in from the cold and we ought to keep the door open.”
But a Campaign MP says that the division inside the Campaign Group on Europe is merely generational, with the older members around Benn sticking to anti-Europeanism: on this reading, what is going on is nothing more than jockeying for position for leadership of the parliamentary hard left in preparation for the Benn generation’s retirement from politics.
It is undoubtedly early days yet for any talk of breaking the parliamentary left mould. But who knows what might happen when normal politics resumes?