How Not to do Radicalism

How not to do radicalism: The hold of Capital-ism on Labour’s Left from Benn to Corbyn

The Searchers: Five Rebels, Their Dream of a Different Britain, and Their Many Enemies, Andy Beckett, Allen Lane £30.

Review by Gerry Hassan

This book covers the rise and fall, and rise again and subsequent fall, of the Labour left over a period of over fifty years – from the late 1960s to the present. Andy Beckett locates such an epic canvas through telling the story of five connected individuals – Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. 

Such an approach aims to make this more human and relatable.  However, this is a questionable conceit, as it assumes a major thread connecting all these figures in the late 1960s. Benn, an arch-moderniser under Gaitskell and early Wilson, became disillusioned with the latter’s technocratic managerialism, and in Beckett’s telling by the events of 1968. This he argues was at the same point that the others of a younger generation were also radicalised, with Benn acting as an older tribune of this new left.

There are strengths in this account including fascinating portraits of some of these key figures – such as Tony Benn and his slow estrangement from his Bristol South-East seat post-1979. For all his talk of ‘community politics’, in his 33 years representing the seat he never permanently lived there but commuted from London. Livingstone’s GLC and second coming as London Mayor also provide a rich tapestry. 

London Labour Calling

This is at its heart a flawed book. One assumption is that the intricacies of the London Labour left can tell a story of the wider British left. London is writ large as Britain: a problem with much of UK politics, but acute here in that the five politicians, four of who represent London seats (and all London residents whilst elected) are presented as telling a story not just about London. Never in this 540-page book are these assumptions and presumptions made explicit.

Another is that the inner machinations of the Labour Party and left and its resolutionary socialism are still seen (despite their proven limitations) as what matters. It is as if the past 40 years never happened, and that we are forever in 1981 and the Labour Deputy leadership contest.

The external world is relegated to a shadowy existence. For example, the 1979 and 1997 general elections – the two watershed contests of the past 45 years and changing of the guards in terms of parties, eras and ideas – are passed over with fleeting mention. Even the 2019 reverse with Corbyn at the helm gets scant mention. The inference is these matter little compared to the gargantuan issue of the struggle for socialism in the Labour Party. 

Similarly, the 2016 Brexit vote and Corbyn’s complicity in the narrow victory for Leave is given little space, and Corbyn’s role minimised and excused. There is only the most passing mention of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum: something on which all the primary figures of this book had next to nothing of originality to say but which shook the British state to its foundations.

At least five different threads run through this book and struggle to be heard. There is the political radicalism of Tony Benn; the rise and fall of Bennism; the fate of the Bennite left after Benn in the 1980s; the odyssey of Ken Livingstone from the GLC to London Mayor (and then political wilderness); and the emergence and subsequent defeat of Corbynism.

This vast canvas covers a huge amount of ground and different eras, and hence never really digs deep trying to understand one period. The book stresses the influence and impact of this left agenda. But these have been few and far between in the world outside Labour and mostly restricted to Ken Livingstone’s electoral pragmatism. A vast number of defeats occur both in the Labour Party such as successive leadership contests until Corbyn, and successive electoral reverses.

The lesson the chief protagonists and Beckett take from this politics of retreat and defeat over 40-50 years is the need to preserve, not compromise and remain active to offer a politics of testimony. This was what the post-Bennite left was reduced to until Corbyn accidentally won the Labour leadership in 2015; and is their fate again under Starmer’s Labour.

The conservatism of much of Labour’s left

None of the creative debates which have taken place in the wider Labour and non-Labour left over this period are present in this account. This is reflective of the deep-seated conservatism which the Bennite left and its successors embraced: a politics of affirmatory socialism and religious certainty about socialism. Ken Livingstone is an exception to this in some respects. But otherwise, the rich debates on class, working class culture, work, gender, capitalism and understanding the appeal of the right and phenomenon of Thatcherism, was completely missing from this strand of the left. This denying of inconvenient realities is uncritically reproduced in Beckett’s account.

Unexplored are shortcomings of the inner world of the Labour left, despite the ample space provided to study its minutiae. Related to this is the relegation of electoral success and popularity. Thus, there is no consideration of why the left has been so poor at winning enduring popular support and has at times managed to diminish public support for even potentially popular issues by the way it does politics.

Hence the fact that Ken Livingstone proved remarkably adept at putting together winning coalitions at the GLC and as London Mayor, compared to Benn in 1983 or Corbyn as Labour leader, is left untouched. Part of the reason is surely that for all Livingstone’s radicalism, he was also adaptive, flexible and outward focused, with a story to tell of a diverse, dynamic city.

In Beckett’s account the mistakes of the Labour left are always with the best intentions – like Brexit, allegations of anti-semitism – while it is the Labour right in the 1980s fightback against Benn or scheming against Corbyn which are always up to no good, plotting and engaging in faction fighting.

This strange book is never sure what it is, beyond one long apology for the Labour left and individuals profiled. This deeply sentimentalised, over-romanticised account is the type of perspective that dominates too much of Labour’s history, resulting in the party believing in its own inner world and ethos to the ultimate detriment of itself and the country.

A history of the rise and fall of Bennism with the benefit of years passed, or a critical examination of Corbynism, would be a book worth reading, but this is sadly none of those things.

Radical politics to have any relevance and chance of success have to be continually changing, adapting, self-aware and self-critical. Sadly, the dominant strands of this variant of Labour’s left over much of the past two generations have displayed the opposite credentials: showing their deep-seated conservatism, adulation of Labour movement myths, and clinging to obsolete totems like they are biblical texts. 

The years of Benn and Bennism, Livingstone’s London, and Corbynism, have some germs of creativity, imagination and radicalism, but mostly this is a set of lessons on how not to do successful radical politics: a lesson which Andy Beckett seems to have completely failed to grasp. 


Comments (2)

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  1. Paddy Farrington says:

    This interesting review reads like an assessment of the limitations of the Labour left, not just the limitations of the book. Limitations characterised by inherent economism and a profound parochialism, which found it difficult to adjust to the challenges posed by the New Left and the many movements that emerged and thrived outside the Labour Party. This tribal attitude was exemplified by Benn’s call for CND to affiliate to the Labour Party. For part of the period covered by the book, an important source of ideas was the Communist Party (or at least its majority eurocommunist wing), particularly the Communist Universities it organised and its journal Marxism Today. The ‘Break up of Britain’ conference organised in Edinburgh last Autumn in honour of Tom Nairn rekindled some of that spirit.

    1. 240615 says:

      And the hagiography of the book clearly doesn’t align with Gerry’s assessment of those limitations.

      Which assessment is spot on, BTW; democratic socialism in Britain does continue to be haunted by a heroic working class/’we’ll keep the red flag flying here’ nostalgia. In the words of that piece of nationalist hauntology, ‘Those days are past now…’

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