Pushing Labour Leftwards?

Arthur Stanley Newens, In Quest of a Fairer Society: My Life and Politics

The Memoir Club, 395pp, £12.00, ISBN 9781841045641

reviewed by Ian Birchall

The recent death of Tony Benn prompted the question: what has happened to the Labour left? A similar question is posed by the autobiography of Stan Newens. Newens was a Labour MP from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1983; after that he was for fifteen years a Member of the European Parliament. His memoirs, clearly based on detailed notes, record his activities over several decades; to someone like myself, a little younger than Newens and a rank-and-file activist, they provide a fascinating perspective on events I lived through.

Newens’ background was close to those he set out to represent. Born into the ‘respectable working class’, he was the first in his family to go to university. He worked four years as a miner as an alternative to military service, then taught in an East London comprehensive. Nor was parliament the gateway to a glittering career – in 1964 his salary was £1,000 a year, less than I earned as a very junior college lecturer.

In the 1950s and 60s there was a substantial body of left Labour MPs who had significant active backing in the constituency parties. The left stood for clear alternative policies – above all nationalisation and nuclear disarmament. (The Labour right, like Anthony Crosland, argued that equality could be advanced without public ownership; today Labour has abandoned any aspiration to equality.) That left has now disappeared.

Newens lists the many local, national and international campaigns he participated in, testimony to his constant energy and determination. Certainly there were victories, especially on human rights issues – there are people who owe their life to Newens’ interventions. But for one who defined his overall aim as ‘to persuade the Labour Party to adopt socialist policies’, the balance-sheet was negative. Unlike Benn, Newens never held ministerial office; like Benn he came to realise that real power did not lie in parliament. Despite parliamentary interventions, he was unable to prevent the closure of AEI factories in Harlow; he notes sadly:

If … democratically elected governments are unable to intervene on economic issues of fundamental concern to electors, voters will inevitably become cynical about the value of their democratic rights.

Newens has been a man of principle; he undoubtedly lost votes because of his opposition to the sale of council houses, his support for abortion and his defence of Palestinian rights. He has no regrets. But he saw events from the standpoint of the parliamentary process. In early 1974 industrial action by miners led to the fall of the Heath government. He recalls: ‘I feared violent confrontations which could turn marginal voters against voting Labour. Our duty was to support the miners but I recognized that the struggle could cost me the seat I hoped to win ….’ In fact it is arguable that if the miners had called off their action, the Tories might have regained their momentum and won the election.

Newens gives an honest account of the difficulties of the Labour left MPs in rebelling against the party line. In 1964-66, and again in 1974-79, Labour had a tiny majority, and the left could not use their voting power. But in 1966-70, when Labour had a huge majority, the leadership could disregard parliamentary revolts. Catch 22. And on occasion Newens seems to overstate the impact of rebellion. In 1966, 35 left MPs abstained in a vote on the government’s support for the American war in Vietnam. He continues: ‘The impact on the rank and file of the Labour Party and the public in general was electric.’

Now I was an activist involved in the Vietnam Solidarity campaign between 1966 and 1968. To be honest, I had forgotten the vote Newens refers to. Doubtless we welcomed it. But the main forces involved in building the opposition to the war in Vietnam came from outside parliament, from deeply disillusioned Labour members and newly radicalised students. On several occasions Newens refers slightingly to what he calls ‘sectarian’ and ‘ultra left’ groupings, although, as he notes, has tried to stay on ‘speaking terms’ with the far left and to co-operate where possible. He was himself in the 1950s a prominent member of the Socialist Review Group (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party).

Newens rather underestimates the achievements of the far left. He describes how Liberation (of which he was Chairman) organised the demonstration against the National Front in Red Lion Square in June 1974 at which student Kevin Gately was killed by police. As a result he insisted that ‘no more counter demonstrations should be organised at the same venue as National Front gatherings.’ No more is said about anti-fascism in the 1970s. Yet it seems probable that the regular confrontation of the National Front every time they tried to march, notably at Wood Green and Lewisham in 1977, meant that only a few hundred hardened street-fighters marched, and the NF was unable to mobilise its electoral support onto the streets. The Anti-Nazi League (initiated by the extra-parliamentary left) finished off the job.

Perhaps I have been too harsh. For if the Labour left to which Newens gave his allegiance failed in its declared aims, nobody else can claim success; the left overall is weaker today than when Newens entered parliament. Newens remained uncorrupted by elected office, and is still today, in his eighties, committed to the fight for social justice. He said what he believed. Today’s Labour MPs are so obsessed with image that if they had to say what they really believed, they probably wouldn’t know.
Ian Birchall is a historian and translator. His most recent book is Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time.