Lindsey German & Peter Morgan

The prospects for socialists

An interview with Tony Cliff

(Summer 1992)

From International Socialism 2 : 55, Summer 1982, pp. 65–76.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There are all sorts of reasons being put forward for Labour’s recent defeat. Why do you think Labour lost the General Election?

The overwhelming reason why Labour lost was because the Labour Party campaign did not reflect the massive anger which exists against the Tories. Every time there has been any struggle, Labour has taken a lead in the opinion polls. For example, in April 1990, after the big demonstrations against the poll tax, Labour was 24.5 points ahead of the Tories. By the time of the election this lead had been dissipated. What happened to this anger? People are not better off than they were two years ago, and the Tories’ policies are just as unpopular.

Two things happened over that time. Firstly, Thatcher, who was the focus for resentment, was replaced by Major. That took away a central symbol of the anger. In addition, the Labour leaders did their best not to tap into the anger that existed. During the election campaign the poll tax was hardly mentioned, and there was certainly no real campaign against it. Yet Labour could have tapped the huge numbers affected by the tax. There were 11 million poll tax summonses for non-payment, there were 1.25 million under warrant for non-payment in Scotland, and up to 1 million benefit deductions. The Local Government Information Unit estimates there were 15 to 17 million people who had not paid the tax for at least some period. If these people alone had voted Labour its total vote would have increased, and Labour would have had a majority of over 100.

On other issues, such as low pay, little was done. The minimum wage was very popular with ordinary people, but the Labour leadership was not aggressive over the issue. Instead they were very defensive. They should have made it an issue over which to attack the Tories, by comparing the low paid with those at the top like the bosses who have gained so much under the Tories. That would have struck a chord, but it was not done. Instead of this Labour leaders hardly ever raised the issue of the minimum wage; they only reacted to the Tory accusation that the minimum wage would increase unemployment.

Occasionally, some class content did appear in Labour’s propaganda. Its high point was the health broadcast, Jennifer’s ear, which caused such a storm. On this issue Labour could have massively increased its support, but the moment the Tories went on the offensive the Labour leadership backed down and the issue was lost. So there was little concentration on the emergence of a two tier system in the NHS. There was no campaign by Labour over the spread of poverty in this country. Housing was hardly mentioned. No one said that there were 200,000 council houses a year built during the 1950s, whereas there were only 13,000 council houses built last year. On every issue which galvanises real anger among people, Labour failed to fight. It therefore threw away the lead in the polls and ended up defeated, because it tried to play the Tories at their own game.

However, none of this alone explains the Labour Party defeat. For that we have to look much deeper. Labour’s aim of managing capitalism more efficiently and humanely than the Tories has got them into this position. So, for example, one reason why the poll tax was downplayed was because Labour councils are committed to collecting it, to the extent of sending working class people to prison for non-payment. The whole approach is to convince British capitalism that Labour can run the system.

So the Labour leadership has spent the last few years appealing to the City of London – the ‘prawn cocktail circuit’ – which has meant attacking any struggle or policy which might upset the City. And of course the City of London showed its gratitude to John Smith and Neil Kinnock – when Labour lost, the value of shares rose by £20 billion, and in 24 hours the government sold as many bonds as it would usually sell in a month.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that Labour lost the election during the four weeks of the campaign, or even in the three months before. Much of the rot had set in long before. Throughout the 1980s, when the Labour leadership argued for new realism, when they told workers to wait for a Labour victory, they were making it much more likely that they would lose the next election. Without collective action, workers’ confidence declined. Yet over the last years Kinnock has argued to dampen the action among one group of workers after another. This is the main reason for their defeat. Again and again during the long years of Tory rule the outbreak of class conflicts pushed Labour support forward – in 1980 during the steel strike Labour had 8 percent advantage over the Tories; in 1981 during the inner city riots Labour had 10 percent advantage; in 1984/85 during the miners’ strike this was 14 to 15 percent; in 1990 during the ambulance dispute it was 16 percent; and following the poll tax mass demonstrations and riots of March 1990 Labour’s advantage was 24.5 percent. In the name of new realism, however, the Labour leaders dampened workers’ struggles and this parliamentary cretinism led to the failure of Labour in the parliamentary elections of 1992.

None of this was inevitable. In this election left wing candidates often made a very good showing – usually because they campaigned on some sort of class politics. For example in Coventry South-East the expelled Labour MP Dave Nellist (who stood as Independent Labour) nearly won, but more importantly the left majority increased massively if you add the official and unofficial Labour vote. The same happened in Liverpool Broad Green. Bernie Grant in Tottenham tripled his majority.

Why does Labour as a whole not do this, and why has it moved so far to the right in recent years?

In order to understand it, we need to look at the history of British capitalism since the war. From 1945 to 1974 there was the post-war consensus between the two main parties, based on very similar policies. This period of consensus was sometimes termed ‘Butskellism’ and was based on certain shared assumptions. Full employment was accepted by both Labour and the Tories. So for example in the early 1970s when unemployment reached 1 million under the Heath government there was a massive outcry. There were a couple of hundred factory occupations and Heath was forced to do a U-turn and cut unemployment. It was cut to 600,000. The second agreement was the mixed economy – that there had to be a balance between the state and private sectors. Thirdly, there was a commitment to the welfare state. So Harold Macmillan, the Minister of Housing in the Churchill government, boasted that he was the best one ever because he built over 200,000 houses in one year. Both parties were committed to building council houses.

However, although it was always true that there was consensus, the parties’ policies were not identical. The Tories did not mind a little unemployment when there was ‘full employment’, and saw it as preferable to an inflationary economy. This was much less acceptable to Labour. Labour put more emphasis on the public sector while the Tories emphasised the private sector, and the Labour Party was also more committed to the welfare state. But neither talked about any fundamental change in the set up. The expansion of British capitalism between 1945 and the early 1970s was such that these reforms could be achieved.

From 1974 onwards the situation changed. The first great post-war recession hit. Capitalism went into slowdown in growth and into recession. Now there was a new consensus – between Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Thatcher government, and Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Callaghan Labour government. On the three basic issues of full employment, mixed economy and the welfare state, the new consensus was exactly the opposite of the old consensus of Butskellism. Labour said forget about full employment. It was Labour’s Jim Callaghan who announced that you cannot keep throwing money at jobs. Now no one talks about full employment. A very high level of unemployment is regarded as both inevitable and ‘acceptable’, and has been since the late 1970s. When it comes to the mixed economy, the Labour Party has accepted the privatisation that has occurred. Its recent campaign did not talk about buying back electricity, gas or British Telecom. Kinnock made it clear that privatisation would continue, and would not be reversed. So the idea of the mixed economy has been abandoned. And hand in hand with this goes acceptance of a very poor welfare state. It was Labour that closed hospitals, cut education and so on from 1976 at the behest of the IMF. Now the consensus has shifted. This was because between 1945 and 1978 the annual rate of growth of gross national product was 3.1 percent. Since then it has halved; in the last 13 years output in manufacturing rose by less than one tenth a year. Under such conditions there is no possibility of full employment. And there is very little surplus for welfare when billions have to be paid to the unemployed. When the government budget is so tight it is impossible to spend money on nationalising industries, privatisation is a necessary source for paying government expenditure. There is still consensus, but on different terms. There is a consensus of high unemployment, privatisation and welfare cuts. The parties are close together but not identical. They approach the question in different ways, but with many of the same assumptions.

How does that undercut the traditional base for reforms which Labour has relied on since 1945?

It leads to the fundamental problem for social democracy today. What we have is reformism without reforms. Reformist consciousness develops from a major contradiction inside capitalism: the working class must emancipate itself, yet at the same time the prevailing ideas are those of the ruling class. This contradiction exists in reality inside the working class. There are those who always accept the prevailing consciousness, those who completely reject Tory ideology, and those in the middle who both reject and accept it. They resist the prevailing ideology, and believe in change within the system itself. Reformist consciousness wants to change the system but lacks the confidence. At this stage of Labourism it is a period of reformism that doesn’t achieve reforms. The level of reforms that capitalism can afford is different in different periods. When capitalism is prosperous it can afford more reforms. But one thing it cannot function without is profit. Therefore if the economy is in crisis one of the two things have to give – either profit or the reforms. The logic of reformist politics is therefore always to move to the right in a period of capitalist crisis. Fritz Tarnow, an ideologue of the German trade unions in the early 1930s, said that capitalism is so sick we have to be the doctors of capitalism. There is a logic in this, because if capitalism is sick it cannot afford reforms.

Not only can you have reformism without reforms, as we have at the moment, but also reformist leaders who, because of the crisis of capitalism, move massively to the right. Under such conditions they become the source of workers’ disgruntlement. This is the situation in France at the moment under Mitterrand. In 1981 he got over 50 percent of the vote for the presidency and people celebrated, yet in the elections last March the Socialist Party got 18 percent of the vote and were beaten to third position in Paris, Marseilles and Lyons, coming after the National Front. This shows the scale of workers’ disgruntlement with them. The reformist government can become the target. It does not cause the mess that is capitalism, but it becomes the agent of capitalism.

The reformists are also unable to deal with it. They take a moderate position and try to survive. But with the dissatisfaction things can move either to the left or to the right: either it can be directed to the real causes of the trouble – the employers, the state – or it can be directed against blacks or Jews. The reformists cannot deal with it at all, and they cannot mobilise in the right direction. The condition of the reformist party which cannot deliver reforms and creates anger against itself means they are unable to fight back.

What about the role of the trade union bureaucracy and its relationship both to the working class and the Labour leaders? How does this fit into your analysis?

The Labour Party is the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy, which vacillates and mediates between the two main classes, and also between different sections of workers. In the long period of expanding capitalism after the war workers were confident. They knew they could improve their conditions by sectional and even individual activity, something we called at the time ‘do it yourself reformism’. Thus you could have reforms, but also apathy. The trade union bureaucracy did not have much pressure on them. The reforms that workers fought for did not amount to a fight against the trade union bureaucracy.

Things changed in the early 1970s. The situation meant that there was generalisation. British capitalism went into crisis, and the economy became a real problem for the government of the day. The Labour government had gone on the offensive over wages and in 1969 tried to introduce In Place of Strife to curb the trade unions. This met massive resistance and failed. The Heath government anti-union laws and incomes policy politicised things further. Because the Tories generalised, the workers also generalised. This led to the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 and the dockers’ strike in 1972 against the Industrial Relations Act. The workers were confident and they met the generalisation of the ruling class head on. The anger was against the Tories, but class conscious workers raised the slogan of a Labour government. That’s what we got in 1974. It led to the Social Contract which caused widespread demoralisation. Workers came to the conclusion that all industrial action had to be official in order to win.

The years 1974–79 were the first period that scabbing was official. For example, at Heathrow a strike of 5,000 engineers saw the rest of the workforce, some 60,000 of them, instructed to cross the picket line by their unions. It is important to realise that when workers generalise in their struggle they need an organisation that can also generalise. When workers hesitate then they need people to argue for action. This was not forthcoming from the union bureaucracy and as a consequence there was a growth of both demoralisation and right wing ideas, which in turn eased the election of a Thatcher government in 1979.

Since then the trade union bureaucracy has moved massively to the right. And the rank and file has come to depend very heavily on the bureaucracy. In the Labour Party the union leaders became the fundamental force in pushing through new realism. There is now a new condition of apathy – alienation from mass organisation – which has been a long process. What does this apathy and alienation mean for the future?

It is useful to compare the situation today with that of France in 1968. When the general strike happened there it was like a bolt from the blue. Not even French Marxists could see it coming. It was not seen or predicted because of the real levels of alienation from mass organisation. There are usually a number of barometers to judge workers’ consciousness: how many are in the workers’ party, the unions, how many come to demonstrations, how many papers do they sell, or read, and how does this compare to the size of the organisation? If there is no barometer then the workers themselves don’t know the mood that others feel – the individual is as conscious as his mates. So the struggles and activity that do take place are like sudden outbursts. Of course there is always an immediate catalyst, but the only reason that there is such a level of mass action is because there was so much discontent around. In France for nearly 20 years before 1968 there was a decline in workers’ confidence, there was no barometer to judge workers’ mood and then suddenly it burst. The activity came, but the action came from nothing, it rose and then it disappeared. There was no mass revolutionary organisation so there was no continuation and we had a right wing government until 1981 when Mitterrand won.

This sort of swing upwards and downwards is absolutely inevitable in such circumstances. The alienation means there is a vacuum, and it can swing in either direction – to the right and the left, and it can swing massively either way.

The difference this time is that we are not going through a period of expanding capitalism. It is not like France after 1968. Capitalism is in world crisis. The Tories’ problems continue. I believe the government will be forced to raise taxation, carrying out massive cuts in expenditure. The stress on tightening fiscal policy is clear from the appointment by Major of three Thatcherites – members of the No Turning Back Group – to key ministerial posts: Michael Portillo is Chief Secretary to the Treasury in charge of this year’s spending round while Peter Lilly has taken charge of Social Security, the biggest spender, and Michael Howard has Environment, responsible for local government. Unemployment will continue to rise. There is not enthusiastic support for the Tories now, despite the election result. That is likely to worsen. If in a couple of years time the Labour Party comes to office – and of course it still can do so despite what is said, it will do so with very high levels of passivity, and alienation from organisation. Under such conditions a Labour government can open the door to a right swing – as in France – (and Labour will not have the honeymoon period that Mitterrand had). So from the beginning the Labour Party will be part of the problem. It will not be able to solve the anger. Instead it will be the subject of the anger. It will be part of the problem. In this situation the role of the revolutionary party becomes absolutely crucial.

Many people will agree with this analysis but they will draw pessimistic conclusions from the election result – for example they will argue that we need proportional representation or a pact with the Liberals. The danger is that people will be very angry in the short term, but will then draw very pessimistic conclusions. How do you deal with this?

In terms of the Labour Party as a whole there is no doubt that the main conclusions drawn will be right wing. If Kinnock had won, people would have said it proves that right wing policies are correct, but with Kinnock losing the election they will say it proves that the working class is finished. Maybe the campaign was too aggressive, the Smith budget went too far on tax. One conclusion is to have an alliance with the Liberals. What does this mean? In the south Labour people would not put candidates against the Liberals and in the north the Liberals would not stand against Labour. But the problem is that all the surveys show that the majority of Liberals are more pro-Tory than Labour. So in the south the Labour voters will have no alternative while the Liberals in the north will vote Conservative. The result will be to strengthen the move to the right. The logic of this alliance will be to transform the Labour Party into a party like that of the Democratic Party in the US.

I don’t believe this will happen. They can’t deliver it, although they can move in this direction. But the relationship with the unions is too strong, and the Liberals hate the unions. Even so, the move towards it can do massive damage to ordinary Labour Party members. The only thing that will stop this drift to the right will be mass action outside the Labour Party. The problem with this however is that you cannot see it coming. There is massive anger in this country, which is resentful – it’s not active anger yet, but it is there nonetheless. We can never be sure when this anger will explode.

The problems exist for our side. But look at their side. They will make mistakes – like the poll tax – a stupid arrogant thing from their point of view. In the long term British capitalism faces huge problems because of its many weaknesses. It also has problems now. What will happen exactly in a year or two years time is much harder to see. Because of the anger and the crisis of the system there will be periods of rebellion. We don’t know when but there will be. We didn’t predict the poll tax riot in Trafalgar Square, but it happened because there was so much anger around. This is still the case today.

There is an argument about structure – that the working class is dead, the decline of the working class, the working class is conservative. This will get a lot more resonance now as a result of the election. How do you respond to it?

The argument about Essex man is nothing new. In 1959 after Labour lost three general elections there were people who argued, ‘Must Labour lose?’ And the conclusion they reached was, of course, that they must, because there had been sociological change in the working class. Then they said the working class is mesmerised by television and washing machines. For the Labour Party to win elections it has to sever its ties with the trade unions and purge its constitution of Clause 4 (nationalisation of industry). Thus Douglas Jay, one of the most prominent leaders of the Right in the Labour Party, wrote:

The better off wage earners and numerous salary earners are tending to regard the Labour Party as associated with a class to which they themselves do not belong ... We are in danger of fighting under the label of the class which no longer exists.

This ‘class which no longer exists’ a few years later led massive strikes in the mines, docks, engineering and print, which brought the Heath government to its knees.

When Labour won the 1964 and 1966 elections with a massive majority of some 100 – the same people wrote that the Labour Party is the ‘natural party of government’. They are completely empirical, so today they forget this history as it is inconvenient for them.

It is not true that a good standard of living for workers will drive them away from Labour. The real question is whether collective action to raise the standard of living or to defend it, or individual actions raise the confidence of the workers. The most militant workers in the First World War were the top wage earners – the skilled engineers of the Clyde, skilled engineers of Germany, Italy. It is not true that the poorest earners are the backbone of the Labour Party. They never have been. On the contrary, often it is the lower paid workers, people in nonunion jobs and so on, who lack confidence to fight and to organise. It is not so much their standard of living that determines workers’ confidence, and so their consciousness, but whether they are involved in collective action to defend their standard of living.

The key is not the composition of the working class – manual or white collar – but its size and strength. All the experts just look at the surface and draw superficial conclusions. So Labour losing in the 1983 election led to it becoming holy writ that Labour would never ever win because it would need the biggest swing since 1945. Then the polls in the recent campaign showed that Labour was going to win, and so the argument completely disappeared. The so called experts always look to the status quo. The revolutionaries must always look to the potentiality of the working class, not the actuality. When the struggle takes place, in terms of class consciousness workers will know they are workers as part of the same class. Consciousness will come from the struggle.

What about prospects for the left? Do you see a revival for the Labour left in any real sense in the aftermath of the election defeat?

We are not going back to 1981, when the Labour left was at its height with the movement around Tony Benn, and revolutionaries outside the Labour Party were very isolated, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, in 1981 there was an industrial downturn, with job losses and defeats in the workplaces. There was also a political upturn, which took the form of Bennism. There was a real feeling that the Labour Party could be changed from below, and that its ordinary members would have much more say in running it. This feeling does not exist today. Then large sections of the union block vote supported the left. Today the leadership contest, the battle for the leadership for the Labour Party, is between two right wing candidates. The union machine is in the pocket of the right. They will decide between Smith and Gould, not Benn and Smith.

There is a great deal of bitterness and anger around at the roots of the Labour Party. People feel that they allowed Kinnock to move the party to the right because it would pay off electorally, and exactly the opposite has happened. But no one on the left really believes they can transform Labour from below at the moment.

Also in 1981 the Labour left controlled the GLC and 50 other municipal councils. This was the beginning of the period of municipal socialism. The strategy was a disaster. The majority of the Labour left refused to fight over ratecapping in the mid-1980s, and more recently over the poll tax. Now, however, they have to live with the past. These councils are imposing cuts, implementing the poll tax because they refused to fight. This has gutted the Labour left. There is no way at present that the Tony Benn phenomenon could exist through local government. That is not to say that it cannot have influence in say five or ten years time. But for now the councils are not a point of resistance for the left. Likewise the union machine is not a symbol of resistance for the left. Indeed, the union leaders are pushing Labour even further to the right at present. The revolutionary left, therefore, is in a much stronger position than it was in 1981.

There are also wider political questions which have in recent years damaged the case of the Labour left. We have seen reformism in action over the last few years. People say reformism works, but you only have to look to the experience of France, Spain and Australia. They have implemented ‘Thatcherite’ policies with a vengeance. It is a lot more difficult now to say reformism works, and therefore workers begin to look to other, revolutionary, alternatives. In addition the death of Stalinism, following the events of the past three years in Russia and Eastern Europe, has had a marked impact on Western socialists. In the early 1980s Stalinism was still a world phenomenon. The bulk of the left, even those in the Labour Party, looked to its politics and analysis. Now that has gone. Again that has led some socialists to more right wing conclusions. However, it has also led many to looking round for socialist alternatives to Communism or Labourism. That also means that the world is a much more volatile place now, which gives much greater opportunities to the revolutionary left.

So would you say that it is still possible for revolutionaries to take initiatives and build, or does Labour’s defeat and the weakness of the Labour left mean a period of retrenchment? Are there still the opportunities that existed during the last days of Thatcher? What does this mean for the revolutionary party in terms of pushing outwards and the opportunities that exist at the moment?

We live in a period of upheaval. The ruling class, or at least sections of them, will try and put the boot in. We don’t know what form resistance will take. But resistance there will be. In every strike members of the SWP must intervene actively. Socialists or the socialist organisation can play a crucial role in every act of resistance – industrial or political.

The party is very important and it is essential that we continue to push outwards. There are tens or even hundreds of thousands of individuals who are looking for solutions to the crisis, to the problems of reformism and to all the other major questions in the world today. We must try to provide some of those answers. So we have an audience for our paper, and for our other publications. But we cannot be complacent. Because there is a low level of struggle at present, because there is a lack of generalisation, we have to pay a great deal of attention to individuals. We must take care of our members, the non-members who are around us and come to our meetings, our Socialist Worker readers. We have to do two things simultaneously: look outwards towards the sorts of issues around which we can mobilise people; and look to the base, to our members and to the branches. If we can build a sizeable revolutionary organisation, and continue to deepen our roots in the local working class movements, then we are very well placed for the struggles ahead.

Engels said that our struggle is on three fronts – the economic, the political and the ideological. We should not mechanically separate these things, but they are not exactly the same. Building the revolutionary party now is crucial. The defeat of Labour opens the door to the building of the party. Millions of people may feel depressed, but hundreds of thousands will ask the question why? And we can talk to a few of these individuals. We can build the party organisation and present a revolutionary alternative.

Last updated on 29 March 2016