Why Did Labour Move Leftwards After the Party’s 1970 Election Defeat

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Last updated: March 31, 2019

Hatfield wrote the 1970 election defeat “signalled the erosion of the reformist social democrats’ hegemony over the formulation of party policy.

From the wreckage of electoral defeat a small group drifted on the ebb-tide of revisionist ascendancy and landed on fertile ground (1978, p17). ” On this ebb-tide, the leftwing group mobilised support and then set about taking control of Labour’s policy-making apparatus to ensure Labour had a more socialist programme.Labour’s leftwards shift following the 1970 election defeat was driven primarily by the failure of Labour’s economic policy while in government, which had led to serious economic decline. There was rising inflation, rising indebtedness and rising unemployment.

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The economy was in such a poor state that welfare provisions could not be assured (Thompson, 1996, p197-8).Numerous people inside and outside the party agreed with Stuart Holland’s assessment that “Keynesian social democracy was doomed because the power of national governments to achieve objectives such as full employment, the increase of social welfare expenditure and the redistribution of wealth had been seriously eroded (Thompson, 1996, p201). ” Therefore Labour was required to rethink policy in the light of this failure. The idea of reverting to the untried socialist alternative became popular with the party and it supporters.Holland argued that this would allow government greater control over the economy, which could then be steered in the right direction. The culmination of this was Labour’s Programme in 1973 (Wickham-Jones, 1996, p116).

There was a feeling “that the election defeat was a product of disillusion and dismay at the base of the party (1997, p68). ” This was not only a product of the Labour government’s failure to fulfil policy objectives. Many in the party felt marginalized, or even ignored, by Wilson’s government which consistently flaunted Conference decisions in favour of its own moderate stance.Those in favour of leftwards shift therefore received a great deal of support from activists and trade unions, who were more than willing to hear a new approach that could stop the countries ongoing economic problems and stop the standard of living from falling (1978, p20). The left’s cause became increasingly popular because of charismatic leadership.

Tony Benn especially had a very high profile and made great speeches that inspired belief in the new leftwards policy direction (1997, p39).Union leaders in particular were greatly dissatisfied with government performance and so shifted left. By the early 1970s, three of the most important union leaders (Lawrence Daly, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon) were recognised as leftwing. This delivered the two largest unions into the hands of the left. What is more, in the late 1960s and early 1970s leftwing unions, for example the Transport and General Workers’ Union, increased in size and therefore power (Wickham-Jones, 1996, p117-8). Although the left were far from united in their opinions, they shared substantial political motivation.They were a powerful force because they strongly believed that Labour governments would continue to fail unless there was a “fundamental change in the balance of public and private sectors in the economy (1978, p18). ” In order for the party to shift leftwards, the left had to seize the reigns of the party.

This required complex political manoeuvring and a certain amount of reform of the party so that a Labour Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet would not be able to ignore the left’s policy. In 1970, Benn released a Fabian Society pamphlet, called The New Politics: A Socialist Reconnaissance that spelt out this plan.He believed “that democratising the state was a precondition for overcoming the injustices of capitalism, and that democratising the party – and enhancing its “educational” role so as to develop popular capacities to rule – was a precondition for democratising the state (1997, p65). ” Benn was a key figure because he took a very active role and brought many procedural changes, especially as party Chairman. Significant steps were made to ensure that the leadership could no longer reject leftwing proposals passed at Conference.Benn did this by severely limiting the ability of the NEC to add on qualifications and reservations to leftwing proposals they accepted, so it eventually was unclear what Conference had passed. This was necessary because despite the leftwards shift in the NEC from 1967, the shift was slow and often leftwing unions would stick with the tradition of electing rightwing members (1997, p70).

The left found it relatively easy to seize the reigns of the party because there was a lack of input from moderates, especially those who were in government.Many prominent moderates seemed to have a hangover from their disastrous period in government. There was a policy vacuum left as they slowly readjusted to life in opposition. For example, Wilson withdrew greatly as he wrote his memoirs. He “failed lamentably to match up to his leadership responsibilities (1978, p24)” and so the left did not have to fight hard. Even Tony Crosland, who had been prolific and very influential for much of the last decade, withdrew from policy-making. He attended less than half the meetings of the Industrial Policy Committee of which he was a member.It was clear he did not take policy-making seriously and was more concerned with front bench activity (Wickham-Jones, p124).

The Revisionists were also split and marginalized because party policy was against membership of the EEC, which many Revisionists passionately supported. This battle took up much of the energy of the Revisionists. For example, Roy Jenkins was so annoyed he resigned as Labour’s deputy leader and from the Finance and Economic Affairs Sub-Committee (Wickham-Jones, 1996, p120).It was essential that for Labour to move leftwards following the 1970 election defeat, the left must have control of the committees that formulate policy. It was especially important to seize control over Industrial Policy Committee and the Public Sector Working Group, which was set up by Conference in 1971, if previous Labour policy was to be challenged (1978, p23). Judith Hart was the key to making sure that these committees were dominated by those on the left with shared objectives and political values (Wickham-Jones, 1996, p121).These committees were centred around leftwing economists such as Stuart Holland and Richard Pryke and “became the locus of policy development for a general extension of public ownership and planning (1997, p79).

” Although there were moderates on these committees, most of them had appalling attendance records and were lethargic compared to their leftwing counterparts. Moderates would often complain about the leftwards policy direction in their absence but this was nearly always to no avail.The left also seized control of Labour’s Research Department, which “responsible for briefing, information and policy work on all aspects of the domestic programme (1978, p23). ” Following the 1970 election defeat, many from Labour’s left who were disenchanted and unwilling to work for the rightwing Labour government came to work in the Research Department. They replaced, or even removed, the well-paid, university educated right, who dominated while Labour were in government (1978, p24).

Policy created at the committee stage must be ratified by Conference to become official party policy.The left dominated Conference because they had support of the majority of constituency activists and trade unions, who were moving to the left at the time. It was essential to have trade union support because of their block vote and the fact they had almost 90% of the total Conference vote based on their affiliated members (1978, p21).

Control of Conference was also so important because it elects people to the NEC. It is the job of the NEC to meet with the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet before elections to create a manifesto based on the programme of policies approved by Conference.Therefore, in order to ensure leftwing policies became party policies, the left also had to have control of the twenty-nine person NEC. Following the election defeat of 1970, the number of moderates on the NEC dropped to fifteen and those on the left increased to twelve. Hatfield wrote “although numerically this gave the moderates the edge, the left gained the upper hand by their diligence at attending meetings (1978, p23). Despite what seems like the lefts iron grip on the policy-making process, policy did not always reflect the leftwards shift.

Leys and Panitch wrote “the “miraculous majorities” for the left at Party Conferences in this period were in a sense all too small and spontaneous, lacking the organisational coherence needed for an effective transformation of party policy (1997, p71). ” Often policy resolutions passed by Conference were watered down or even ignored by the NEC. On the whole, the left were poorly organised. They did not exert enough pressure in the latter stages of policy-making. For example, they did not publicise their policies enough to mobilise popular support and rarely followed the policy-making process to the end (1997, p71).A group called Militant Tendency was a rare example of left organising themselves to ensure certain resolutions were made into official party policy. They were allowed a greater role within the party once the List of Proscribed was dropped by the NEC. This listed specific groups which were allowed influential roles within the party.

Militant Tendency realised the importance of having influence on the NEC and so forged links with the Young Socialists, who had a seat on the NEC (1997, p72). There is no doubt that the Labour Party experienced a leftwards shift following the 1970 election defeat.Leftwing policies became increasingly popular and this was translated into official party policy. The culmination of this was Labour’s Programme of 1973. The leftwards shift was primarily due to the economic failures of the Labour government before 1970. Keynesian social democracy had failed and the economy was in an appalling state so many people suggested reverting to the untried socialist alternative. This cause was helped by committed support from constituency activists and trade unions, which were increasing disenchanted because of the behaviour of the Labour government.

Although the left were far from united, this is one issue that they were united on. At this time those on Labour’s right were split and in recoil following their failure in government. It took many of them years to readjust fully to opposition. There was a policy vacuum and few on the right seemed to take the job of policy-making seriously. This left policy-making apparatus in the hands of the left. The left seized control of Labour’s policy committees, Conference and the NEC.

This gave the left the opportunity to formulate and ratify policy, and then have it included in the party’s official manifesto.

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