A century which proves Labour only wins on the centre-ground

Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Keri Starmer in line in front of faded image of 10 Downing Street. Text reads "Paul on Politics"

This November marks the one hundred years since the Labour Party became the official opposition to the Tories for the first time. The 1922 general election delivered 142 Labour MPs, as the Liberals split into two, never to form a government again. I’ve written a longer essay on it here.

JR Clynes led the party on a manifesto which stated Labour was firmly ‘against revolution’. It said:

‘Labour’s programme is the best bulwark against violent upheaval and class wars. Democratic government can be made effective in this country without bloodshed or violence. Labour’s policy is to bring about a more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth by constitutional means. This is neither Bolshevism nor Communism, but common sense and justice. This is Labour’s alternative to Reaction and Revolution.’

It was vital, after the 1917 revolution in Russia, that the Labour party was clear that we are a democratic party, committed to reform through parliament, not insurrection, general strikes, firing squads, or blood-soaked barricades. In 1929, as Labour Home Secretary, Clynes refused a visa to Leon Trotsky to settle in the UK, on the grounds that the exiled Bolshevik’s presence would be ‘contrary to the interests of this country’.

For the century since, parliamentary democracy has been Labour’s only method to improve the nation, expressed through Clause One of our constitution. This comes as a surprise to some people on ‘the left’ who see Labour on some kind of continuum with anyone and everyone claiming to be ‘socialist’, regardless of their true purpose and convictions. This kind of lame thinking, whereby there are no enemies to the left, places you in bed with some very hostile and nasty people indeed.

The Socialist Workers Party, and its front organisations, are our enemies. The Green Party, Communist Party and the SNP are our enemies. The Alliance for Workers Liberty, Socialist Appeal, Socialist Action, Workers Power, the Socialist Party, the International Socialist League, and the Workers International to Rebuild the Forth International – guess what, all enemies.

The truth is that there are small factions and sects to our left whose attitude to the Labour party is entirely malign – either openly antagonistic like the Communists and SWP, or covertly parasitic like the entryist Trotskyist sects. They seek to subvert Labour from parliamentary democracy through tactics like ‘transitional demands’, by denouncing the leadership of the party and TUC as betrayers, traitors, and sell-outs, and by creating a lexicon of ‘Centrists’, ‘Labour Right’ and ‘Red Tories’ to demonise mainstream Labour folk. It’s all familiar fare to anyone who went through it in the 1980s, but it is made worse by social media. Another tactic is to make local party meetings so boring or unpleasant that normal people opt to stay at home.

This is why Keir Starmer’s direction of travel is so vital. By stepping up action against Labour’s enemies to the left, he has shown the importance of protecting Labour’s borders. He has shown real steel in dealing with entryists and the useful idiots who welcome them over the threshold. This has set the tone for elections for the NEC, for the party’s regional boards, and to local parties making selections for parliamentary candidates. For all the ‘left’s’ huffing and puffing about ‘purges’, the Labour local membership is asserting its right to select decent, credible candidates in key seats, and not total train wrecks who cost us votes and seats.

There’s endless media froth about the former Labour MP for Islington North, but frankly who cares. Stand as an independent against the Labour candidate. Stand as Mayor against Sadiq Khan. Go ahead, and take your narrowing band of acolytes with you. The Labour Party will be stronger and better for it. There is a very good reason why Rishi Sunak keeps bringing up Corbyn at PMQs, and it is based on the solid research and focus groups which prove he was the Tories’ greatest asset in 2019.

Far more significant than the future of a 73-year-old former Labour MP is the cadre of new candidates in seats where Labour must win. Andrew Pakes in Peterborough. Kevin Bonavia in Stevenage. Jo White in Bassetlaw. Mike Tapp in Dover. Steve Race in Exeter. Sarah Sackman in Finchley & Golders Green. Helena Dollimore in Hastings & Rye. Mattia Fahnbulleh in Camberwell and Peckham. Emma Reynolds in Wycombe. Satvir Kaur in Southampton Test. And, of course, Jas Athwal in Ilford South.  These are just some of the talented candidates who will be forming the new Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) after the next election, and in due course be taking up roles in a Labour government.

The centenary of the 1922 general election is a useful moment to reflect on a hundred years of Labour as the main alternative to the Tories. The sad truth is that since 1922, Labour has only governed for a minority of the time, often with shaky foundations, as a minority government, or as part of a pact. When we have won, as in 1945, 1966, and 1997, it has been because the public has no doubt about our values, motives, and true intentions. We win when we occupy the centre-ground and take people along with us. We win with candidates rooted in their communities who inspire trust not ridicule. Like we said in 1922, we win when we stand for ‘common sense and justice’.


If you enjoyed this Paul on Politics, check out his previous issue: Conference for a Shared Future