On the superb Reflections With Peter Hennessy programme Tony Blair has revealed he was a student “Trot” and was inspired to enter politics by Leon Trotsky. We often overlook that Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn stood on the same radical left-wing Labour manifesto of 1983. In the intervening years Blair has radically shifted his world view while Corbyn kept rooted to the same position, only compromising on the EU and Trident once elected party leader in 2015.
Further evidence of Blair’s conversion can be seen in a letter from 1982, uncovered by historian Robert Taylor and published in the New Statesman in 2006. Appealing to the embattled left winger Foot, Blair told him “you do not want anyone, whether at conference or in the Party at large or in the country as a whole, to be in any doubt that you will lead the Labour Party into the next general election; and what is more, that you will win.”
Coming as Labour split between the factions on both the left and right, he did warn that the left is “in danger of falling prey to its perennial fault – introspection” adding: “There is an arrogance and self-righteousness about many of the groups on the far left which is deeply unattractive to the ordinary would-be member.” He called on Foot to root out the radical left-wing group Militant saying: “There should not be a party within a party.”
The letter came a month after Blair, still a relative unknown, had fought a by-election in Beaconsfield. Finishing third, the “Falklands factor” and the popularity of the SDP ensured Labour’s vote was nearly halved from 20.2% to 10.4%. Blair lost his deposit, but it would be the only election defeat of his political career.
Below is the letter in full.
Read this in a quiet moment, if you have any nowadays. And don’t, for goodness’ sake, bother to reply! I was very hesitant in writing: you might consider it either an impertinence or sycophancy. It isn’t meant to be either.
I have just finished reading “Debts of Honour”. It was given to me almost 2yrs ago by an Australian friend, now very active in his own national politics. He exhorted me to read it without delay. What with one thing and another, I didn’t begin it until last week. It started me thinking in all sorts of different directions. It also provided a further diversion from the weary tedium of the Bar! My clerk (the one like Jeeves if you remember) caught me reading it in my room. His eyebrow only rose a fraction but it spoke volumes.
The first thing that struck me about Debts of Honour was the prison of ignorance which my generation has constructed for itself. How many of us have read Haslitt, Paine, Brailsford or even Swift (apart from Gulliver’s Travels) in the original? And it’s not the fact of scholarship or a case of educated oneupmanship. Bruce Page (former editor of the New Statesman) always littered everything he wrote with references and quotations from obscure literati, politicians, churchmen etc but one never felt enlightened by it. These were just vast piles of learning heaped on the reader’s plate till he felt positively bilious.
What is startling to me, reading Debts of Honour, is that your creditors had something so enduring and enriching to say. The passage in which Haslitt defines what it is to be a statesman is quite marvellous. I actually want to go out and explore these people first hand.
It has shown me how narrow is our source of modern political inspiration. Look at Thatcher and Tebbit and how they almost take pride in the rigid populism of their political thought. There is a new and profoundly unpleasant Tory abroad. My opponent at Beaconsfield, in his speech of thanks to the Returning Officer quoted some lines of Disraeli. What was remarkable was that the Tory supporters present were completely disinterested in it. Not a cheer or a shout. There were even the rumblings of a suppressed jeer. The Tory Party is now increasingly given over to the worst of petty bourgeois sentiment – the thought that there is something clever in cynicism: realistic in selfishness; and the granting of legitimacy to the barbaric idea of the survival of the fittest.
Even in our own party (though to a much lesser degree) there is a tendency against letting the mind roam free. In this I can’t help feeling the continual assertion of Marxism with Socialism is in part to blame. Like many middle class people I came to Socialism through Marxism (to be more specific through Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky). The trouble with Marxism is that it is fine if you make it your political servant but terrible if it becomes your political master.
I actually did trouble to read Marx first hand. I found it illuminating in so many ways; in particular, my perception of the relationship between people and the society in which they live, was irreversibly altered. But ultimately it was stifling because it sought to embrace in its philosophy every facet of existence. That of course is its attraction to many. It gives them a total perspective on life. But that can simply become an excuse to stop searching for the truth.
Political thought did not begin nor shall it end with Marx. Yet it is impossible to understand the 30-40 age group in today’s Labour Party without understanding the pervasiveness of Marxist teaching. For me, at university, left-wing politics was Marx and the liberal tradition was either scorned or analysed only in terms of its influence on Marx. It is so abundantly plain when I read Debts of Honour that there is a treasure trove of ideas that I never imagined existed. We need to recover the searching radicalism of these people and the breadth of vision they had.
T Benn is in one sense quite right in saying that the right wing of the Party is politically bankrupt. Socialism ultimately must appeal to the better minds of the people. You cannot do that if you are tainted overmuch with a pragmatic period in power. The phrases that rouse us or should rouse us, are bound to seem stale in the mouth of anyone who has been too closely intertwined with the establishment. It may not be fair but it is true.
But our left is in danger of falling prey to its perennial fault: introspection. There are many of us who were highly critical of the last Labour government who are tired now of retracing incessantly that same old ground. I know that in the Labour Coordinating Committee (of which I am a member), there are many who have that feeling. There is an arrogance and self-righteousness about many of the groups on the far left which is deeply unattractive to the ordinary would-be member: and a truly absurd gulf between the subject matter and language of the legion of pamphlets they write, and the people for whom the pamphlets are supposed to be written. There’s too much mixing only with people with whom they agree. I wonder sometimes whether they would prefer to address a meeting of the converted than the unconverted. I can honestly say that I am at my happiest addressing people that don’t necessarily agree but are willing to listen.
That’s important inside and outside of the Party. Democracy isn’t just about the right to express your views, but the right also to have them listened to. It’s not as if there were not still great causes to fight: poverty, sickness, ignorance, poor housing – they are far from being part of history. And in nuclear war we face a greater threat than any of our ancestors.
I was lucky enough to find a copy of Atlee’s The Labour Party in Perspective, written in 1932. This is what he said at page 9. “There is today as much criticism of the Labour Party as ever, especially from those whose enthusiastic desires make official policy and action appear too slow. I am glad this should be so. Self-criticism is a healthy thing so long as it does not lead to a paralysis of the will…
In a party of the left there should always be room for differences of opinion and emphasis. If the party is to renew itself by drawing on the rising generation, there will necessarily be disagreements due to the different environment in which the young have grown up.
On the other hand, there is a danger that a party may be so concerned about its own health that it becomes a political valetudinarian, incapable of taking an active part in affairs. It may discuss its own internal condition to such an extent that it disgusts all those with whom it comes in contact.”
How perceptive that statement is and how true today! That’s why I liked Debts of Honour. It talked about people who got back to first principles, who wanted the truth even at the price of shattering deep-rooted prejudices. Socialism somehow came alive through the descriptions of all the different people, not least of all, your father. It was as much about your politics as theirs. Though there was hope and vigour and something irrepressibly optimistic that struck a deep chord in me.
What I am saying is that the spirit of Debts of Honour is precisely what we need in the Labour Party at the moment. I’ve no right whatever to do this, but if you’ve struggled this far, I don’t suppose you’ll mind! If I were writing your speech at conference this year, I would make the following points:
(1) On Militant, I would say this. No one has an inalienable right, irrespective of their political views or actions, to belong to the Labour Party. We have a constitution and we have firm principles upon which that constitution is founded. Those principles are the achievement of socialism and the achievement of it, by the Party, through Parliament.
It is a rule of our constitution that there should not be organisations operating within the Party with their own programme, principles and policy i.e. there should not be a party within a party. That is a correct and necessary rule, not a constitutional accident. Without it, you will find organisations pursuing aims within the party inconsistent with the party’s principles and pursuing them in a way that diverts the party’s attention and undermines its will and effectiveness.
To tolerate that would not merely be wrong within the constitution it would be unfair to the party’s ordinary members: the rest of the party would be vulnerable to the organisational manoeuvres of the sect. So it is nonsense to say that Militant or any other group has a right to exist in the Party; or that it is undemocratic to set limits to their activities. Quite the opposite; if a sect is acting outside the constitution and pursuing aims contrary to the principles of that constitution, it would be undemocratic not to stop them.
The argument about a “purge” involves a sleight of hand. It is designed to lose the particular point at issue, by submerging it in generality. The argument is not about “a purge”. It is about Militant: what it does, what its aims are and whether they breach the constitution.
The reason there is an attempt, an intellectually dishonest attempt, to divert people in the Party from a discussion of Militant is that once the facts about Militant are examined, the true role of that sect and its activity is plain. The NEC found it was plain.
Where will you see in the speeches proposing the “no witch-hunt” resolutions, a consideration of the fact that Militant have 34 regional organisers working full-time, whose remit and instructions we know nothing about; the fact that Militant policy is decided by a central committee who meet in private and issue instructions by diktat to the Militant members; the fact that Militant hold annual conferences from which ordinary party members are banned; the fact that Militant was born with a policy of “entryism” into the Party; the fact that their avowed primary sources of inspiration are Lenin and Trotsky, people who no matter how mighty in their own way, derided the notion of socialism through Parliament, which is a notion fundamental to our beliefs?
Nowhere in the speeches of the proposers of these resolutions will you find a consideration of these matters. Nowhere do you find the questions about Militant properly answered. That is for the simple and self-evident reason that there are no answers that could remotely satisfy the objective observer. The issue about Militant is not about denying democracy, it is about defending it. It is about the democratic right of a party to preserve intact its constitution, history and traditions for the benefit of all members and, indeed, supporters, and not for the benefit of any sect.
In other words, I think that we should go on the attack. I truly believe that it is Militant and others that are the anti-democrats. Why then allow them a monopoly of socialist virtue? I also think the whole question of the 1950s and the spectre of purges is misleading. Historical analogies can be superficially attractive, but on close analysis, plain wrong. You knew Bevan as well as any. Were you and his supporters really like the ultra-left of today? Would he, in his battle for the deputy leadership really have sat silent though the quite horrendous (in some places) practices of TB’s ultra supporters last year, and refused to condemn?
(2) Partly because of the battle over Militant and partly to allay the fears of the legitimate left that you are “prisoner of the right” etc I would indicate firmly that you believe the Party needs radical, socialist policies: that the scale of the problems we face as a nation in 1982 means a different approach to previous years. That is not to demean the achievements of past Labour Governments.
But in 1964 or 1974, we didn’t have 3.5 million unemployed; and virtually nil growth and a pillaged manufacturing sector. Each decade and indeed year requires its own perspective. The job of reconstruction particularly against a background that includes new technology and a USA in the grip of the same economic madness Mrs Thatcher visits upon us, is mammoth. Profound problems require profound remedies.
I would appeal, too, for a sense of purpose in the Party. We have a duty much higher than the duty to any grouping or tendency or section of opinion within the Party. It is a duty we owe to the people in our country, to save them from a cruel and bigoted government, that has made disaster and despair a fact of their everyday lives. Over the past two years, we have set an example to the country of how an opposition should not behave; we must now set an example of how it should behave.
Coherent and effective opposition requires a coherent and effective Party. We have a programme for jobs and for the lifting of the threat of nuclear annihilation which is realistic, radical and profoundly relevant to the needs of our people. It is the task of the Party and each person within it to put the conversion of the British people to this programme at the forefront of their political activities. If a member attends four meetings a week within the Party, drop two, and spend the time out talking to the people. If there’s a motion up at your branch or GC that’s going to cause bad feeling, consider whether you really need to have that argument or whether you wouldn’t do better to spend your time planning a canvassing drive, a social or some other activity of an outward and healing kind.
Above all, let democratic debate be democratic; put your views calmly and listen with an open mind to your opponent.
Lastly, I would end by saying this. That you do not want anyone, whether at conference or in the Party at large or in the country as a whole, to be in any doubt that you will lead the Labour Party into the next general election; and what is more, that you will win.
There, I have finally finished!
A close friend (I don’t recall his name) wrote to Gerard Manley Hopkins, when the latter was depressed: “If I were not your friend, then I should wish to be the friend of the man who wrote your poetry.”
I feel the same about Debts of Honour.
Anyhow, many apologies for going on at such length. I expect I will reconsider sending this on re-reading it.
With best wishes,