The fall and rise of the British left by Andrew Murray
Verso Books 2019
Reviewed by Marianne Hitchen
Despite the recent setbacks of the general election defeat and the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader, this book is a reminder of how far we’ve come in the five years since Jeremy Corbyn was elected, and the gains that have been made in that time. Many working class demands that were considered wildly unrealistic, are currently being considered by some sections of the Conservative government. In the book, Andrew Murray follows the fortunes of both the British left and of international capital from his starting point of 1973 to the summer of 2019, when a Corbyn led Labour government still seemed possible. It is a useful reminder of the struggles and movements that many of us grew up with.
In 1973 trade union power was at its strongest since the General Strike of 1926, with successful strikes, sit-ins and solidarity actions to protect living standards. Attempts by both Labour and Tory governments to restrict industrial action in the early 1970s were defeated. Working class confidence was further boosted by the successes of the socialist world and international liberation movements. But darker forces were already at work; indeed, they never went away. The Labour left controlled neither the party nor the Trades Union congress (TUC), both of which were dominated by people allergic to socialism. Working class support for Labour was divided by Harold Wilson’s refusal to oppose the Vietnam War, and by the government’s ‘In Place of Strife’ attack on the trade unions. The idea that successive Labour governments, together with the power of organised labour in the workplace, would eventually lead to socialism was widely held by many on the left, as well as in the Communist Party of Great Britain. The latter was finally shut down after a highly organised and determined campaign waged by the numerically stronger anti-communist forces within its ranks.
ROOTS OF NEOLIBERALISM
With all its flaws, the British labour movement was a major headache for capitalism which, feeling under threat, was preparing to break with the rules of the game as it had hitherto been played in this country, at least since 1945. Evidence that capitalism had no intention of being voted out of power and going quietly was provided by the savage coup in Chile, in which the socialist government was overthrown by the fascist dictator, Pinochet, supported by the US – in particular, by Milton Friedman’s doctrine of the radical free-market economy now known a s neoliberalism. For Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the Chilean experiment was to serve as a model for their own countries. The result was a crushed and atomised society, together with undreamed of freedom, riches and power for the few, courtesy of an alliance between domestic reaction and US imperialism.
But while the flow of international capital and markets were to be freed from state intervention, any opposition that threatened to be successful would be met by uncompromising force. Dissenting voices in the media were gradually phased out. In 2015, we were reminded of the implacable and abiding nature of the capitalist state by an unidentified senior serving general in the British army, who told The Sunday Times that the military would use ‘fair means of foul’ to stop an elected government led by Jeremy Corbyn pursuing policies considered by the top brass to be dangerous to British ‘security’.
The late 70s and 80s saw a depressing succession of setback for the working class. Jim Callaghan, the Labour Prime minister, introduced the beginnings of neoliberal economic policies, then known as monetarism. Then Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 unleashed a full-blown, neoliberal economic and political agenda. She repeated her electoral success in 1983, following the jingoistic Falklands war. A democratic, left-wing upsurge in Labour was seen off and finally, the great miners’ strike of 1984-5 saw the National Union of mineworkers – the ‘strongest Trade union movement in the capitalist world’ – confronted and defeated. The lesson the TUC took from the miners’ strike was the wrong one – essentially that militant action was a dead end. Almost gleefully, the forward march of labour was declared halted by an influential section of ‘left’ commentators.
The 1980s saw an upsurge of small, separate campaigns and protest groups such as those centred on women, black people, gay rights, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Greater London Council, which often most successful when these groups joined forces, for example Women against Pit Closures and the Greenham Common Women for nuclear disarmament, or gay groups in support of the miners. However, the message of solidarity, caring, collectivity and creating a better society was often drowned out by the call for individual rights, which is very much with us today. This was followed at the end of the decade by the catastrophic collapse of the chronically exhausted socialist world. The author does not dwell on the causes of this, but makes clear that it was a massive blow to working class movements world wide. We now had ‘gloves off’ capitalism, no longer fearful of unfavourable comparisons with socialism, and with the prospect of new markets to exploit.
RISE OF NEW LABOUR
When asked about her greatest achievement, Margaret Thatcher said in 2002: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.’ Blair was eager to demonstrate that New Labour was a safe pair of hands for capitalism. one of his first acts was the abolition of Clause Four as it stood in the Labour Party constitution. Its aim was to ‘secure for workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof’. New Labour’s policy was to leave the economy, the City of London above all, to its own devices. The financial sector was to be lightly taxed, barely regulated, and open to the world. London became the centre for international money laundering. Corporation tax was cut from 35% to 28% - ‘going further than Thatcher in letting bosses hang on to their bloated rewards’. This was meant to produce a higher rate of growth, and the expected tax proceeds were supposed to ‘trickle down’ to improve public services. Instead, New Labour sowed the seeds of its own demise with the financial crash of 2008.
New Labour ‘swiftly became entirely absorbed in the apparatus of political power and started to lose its connection with public opinion, the original source of its strength.’ It was a managerial project which recognised the importance of every identity except class, while fusing cultural liberalism with hardline free-market economics. ‘Competence, rather than conviction, was the virtue prized above others.’ The Labour Party leadership and the British labour movement generally, not to mention town halls up and down the land, are still struggling with the legacy of these ideas and the people they produced.
A few dissenting voices continued, steadily, to be heard. Ken Livingston was elected Mayor of London in 2000 and, in parliament, Jeremy Corbyn voted against the New Labour government line 428 times: against war (Afghanistan and Iraq), in defence of civil liberties, against cuts in social welfare, and for better treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers. Then in February 2003, two million people marched in London and other cities around Britain to try to stop the imminent war in Iraq. ‘One of the longer-term consequences of that huge protest, and the dismissal of it by the New Labour administration, was the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership.’
Andrew Murray was chair of the Stop the War Coalition during the years 2001- 2011 and 2015-2016, and he emphasises the part it played in raising consciousness of imperialism and reviving debate within the trades union movement. ASLEF, NATFHE, RMT and the civil service union all declared support for Stop the War. British muslims took part in protests and demonstrations in greater numbers, challenging the rise in islamophobia following 9/11, and became an important feature of the renewed political climate. ‘It became straightforward to locate the whole war policy in an inglorious tradition of self-interest in the Middle East by great powers.’ says Murray, pointing out that the argument over whether the Iraq war was justified is now finished.
Turning to the banking crash of 2008, the book tells of the scandalous price paid by the working class for saving capitalism: hundreds of billions of pounds of public money plus a savage austerity programme. Privatisation of public services, outsourcing and private finance intiatives – and their spectacular failures – and the ongoing transfer of wealth from Labour to capital galloped ahead under New Labour. It intensified under the Tory/Lib Dem coalition elected in 2020. Neoliberalism now entered its ‘zombie phase…surviving without point or public purpose’. Murray considers the effects of the Scottish referendum on independence, ‘when the politics of identity and class collided with disastrous results for the Labour Party electorally’, and the catastrophe of Grenfell: ‘What came in with bombs and bullets in Santiago goes out amid social calamity’.
Does Andrew Murray consider the neo-liberal phase of capitalism to be over? This book was written before the current pandemic, when the states’ role in managing social welfare is being reluctantly resurrected, if only for a short time. Every successful socialist advance has been made by movements whose leaders had a firm understanding of Leninist principles, he says, stressing the need to study politics seriously, the importance of internationalism, and the spirit of self-sacrifice and discipline that is needed to succeed. The Tories cannot adapt to the failures of capitalism, but ‘have chosen to remain the party of rampant inequality, food banks and hedge funds’. This continues to be the case.
Today another economic recession is on the cards. Will the British people stand for austerity mark 2? Alistair Heath, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph wrote: ‘Another crash could destroy capitalism as we know it…no developed nation today could possibly tolerate another wholesale banking crisis and proper, blood and guts recession…another collapse, especially were it to be accompanied by a fresh banking bailout by the taxpayer, would trigger a cataclysmic, uncontrollable backlash, the public…would simply not wear it. Its anger would be so explosive, so all-encompassing that it would threaten the very survival of free trade, of globalisation and of the market-based economy.’ We shall see.