Digital

Exclusive online content

Teaching Jellyfish to Fight

By: David Randall
March 26, 2019

he British Labour Party has always been an unstable coalition of wild-eyed Marxists, sober trade-unionists, respectably reformist Socialists, and what George Orwell memorably described as “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” The big tent made Labour stronger than most socialist parties, because moderate voters were willing to trust Labour’s openness to compromise and commitment to Parliamentary democracy. But it also condemned the party to chronic internal feuding, since the wild-eyed bunch never were happy with the compromises that brought moderates into their fold. Party leaders walked a tightrope that kept them just free of the barmies.

Forty years ago, the tightrope almost failed, and the moderates just barely saved Labour from the loony left. John Golding’s Hammer of the Left: The Battle for the Soul of the Labour Party tells the story of how they pulled it off.

The infinitely malleable Harold Wilson was Labour leader for more than a decade after 1963, as Britain slipped toward stagflation and faced the grim necessity that they would need to go hat in hand to the International Monetary Fund. He was replaced by James Callaghan in 1976, who soldiered on toward Britain’s Winter of Discontent, when Union obstinance buried Labor’s chances to govern for a generation. Michael Foot, the epitome of a fruit-juice drinker, was chosen to face the Iron Lady. And all the while the loonies were on the march.

They’d always been there—sending fraternal greetings to the Soviet Union, refusing to endorse “capitalist wars,” and campaigning for nuclear disarmament. The postwar economic surge produced bumper crops of enthusiastically Marxist university graduates committed to the hard left. Among them were a large core of Trotskyites, members of the Militant Tendency (Militant), who were dedicated to working their way into local chapters of the Labour Party, seizing control, and ensuring that only other Militants were elected to positions of responsibility.

The hard left’s idol was Anthony Wedgwood Benn. Tony Benn was always good for a rousing revolutionary speech, but his parliamentary colleagues hated him: he was unprepared, untrustworthy, and nakedly ambitious. Benn, the hard left, and Militant grasped ever greater power throughout the 1970s. In 1975 the hard left acquired an effective majority on the Labor Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC). At Labour’s Annual Conference, the Militants clenched their fists and bellowed the Communist Internationale for the TV cameras. By 1979, Militant and Benn’s voices were Labour’s loudest.

The low point came in 1981, when Labour’s right wing despaired of any hope of regaining the Party from the Bennites. Their leaders abandoned the party to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP), hoping to take over as the political left’s leaders. Within the year, the SDP was neck-and-neck with Labour in the polls. And without the ex-Labourites of the SDP, Labour’s complete capture by the loonies looked a sure thing.

Enter John Golding—working-class MP, trade-unionist, loyal to the Labour Party, street-fighting politician, political fixer, dedicated to actually winning elections rather than spouting doctrinal purity, and uncompromisingly hostile to Benn and “his sycophantic entourage of power-mad social workers and polytechnic lecturers.” Golding had already fought off Trots trying to take over the constituency in his own district and he had learned the tactics needed to take on the hard left. In 1978, a group of moderate Labourites finally decided they were going to fight the hard left tooth and nail, so they recruited Golding as the point man for political skullduggery.

Hammer of the Left tells this story with vitriol, brio, and mind-numbing detail. Golding is merciless about exposing the hard left’s shenanigans: “They cheated their way into positions of power and justified it to themselves in terms of acting in the interests of the working class. In the name of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ they did all they could to remove control of the party from the working class.” He is also tartly amusing, as when he describes dim hard-leftist MP Eric Heffer trying to leave in dudgeon from a meeting where Golding was holding forth:

[H]e gathered his papers and went to what he thought was the door. It was a cupboard and he banged it shut again. He tried again. Alas, another cupboard! He then tried again and a broom fell out and hit him! Eric the Red was no Robert the Bruce. “Oh, f’ it,” he wailed, “I’m stopping after all.”

On the other hand, only a serious Labour politics boffin will be truly excited by Golding's inclusion of “Hattersley’s plan was adopted by eight votes to seven at the shadow Cabinet on 11 November and by sixty-eight to fifty-nine at a thinly attended PLP the following day.”

But that minutiae mattered. The hard left seized control by paying attention to the details—when to keep a meeting running late, when not to mention to your opponents the meeting’s location, how to move activists from constituency party to constituency party, and when to threaten enemies with physical violence. But Golding and his fellows won back control by paying even closer attention to the details—stitching up union elections, affiliating sympathetic unionists to seize control of hard-left constituency parties, compromising with the soft left, and waiting, waiting, waiting until the soft left finally got tired of being stabbed in the back by the hard left.

Hammer of the Left offers a behind-the-scenes alternative narrative to the one that made the era’s headlines. What seemed to matter at the time was that Labour’s leader, Michael Foot, was an ineffectual cartoon figure whom no one could imagine running the country, since he ran on a suicidal platform of unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community. But Golding shows us that what really mattered was that between 1978 and 1982, Golding organized his allies in the trades unions to seize committee after committee from the hard left, finally including the NEC itself. In the vote for the party’s deputy leadership, right-winger Denis Healey barely prevailed over Tony Benn. And then Golding delivered the coup de grâce by manipulating the candidate selections for the new elections to make sure that Benn had to run in a competitive district—where he was defeated by his Conservative opponent in 1983, left Parliament, and with it any hope of power.

Golding also played a long game with the soft leftists Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, until they were willing to provide a margin of victory for the moderates by abstaining in key votes—including the party’s first actual expulsions of the Militants. And the famously left-wing 1983 Labour platform—the Longest Suicide Note in History—Golding knew he didn’t have the strength to win control of the platform and he knew Michael Foot was going to lose in an epic rout, so he made sure the platform was entirely the hard left’s creation, meaning that they would take all the blame. The 1983 platform allowed the soft left to complete the hard left’s eviction from Labour and win the next election.

That was the hope, anyway. And that’s what eventually happened. But Golding’s streetfighter style had made him so many enemies that it cost him the chance to rise into the Labour shadow cabinet. The Labour leader who finally finished the expulsion of Militant was Neil Kinnock, a jellyfish who had voted for them against the moderates when Militant was riding high. Golding lived long enough to see Tony Blair finally return a now-moderate Labour to power in 1997 and to write this memoir. He died in 1999, aged just 67. Golding was happy enough: given his choice of Tonys, he infinitely preferred Blair to Benn. Blair could get elected, and that was what mattered for working class welfare.

Hammer of the Left shows that the marshmallows can be made to fight back against the wolves. A fierce, canny streetfighter like Golding can graft backbones and muscles on men without chests. You need no-nonsense trades unionists who care more about working class welfare than virtue-signaling to middle-class socialists. You need soft-left jellyfish who are willing, very late in the day, to learn to sting the loonies. You need a political left comprised of politicians who, at heart, are firmly committed to liberty and democracy, and ready to fight for them against their barmy brothers. Arrange all that, and the marshmallows can leave the wolves bloody and in retreat.

But here in the U.S., the moderate left has a harder fight. To confront the barmies, you need Goldings, barmies, and jellyfishes in equal measure. The American left in 2019 is a jellyfish-barmie co-dominium. Maybe it’s too late. But they said that in 1978, and Golding won. The barmies can be defeated. You just have to figure out how to make the jellyfish stand up and fight.