Articles

Lord Kinnock, the Labour leadership & Labour Party history

In Uncategorized on July 9, 2016 by kmflett

At a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party last week Lord Kinnock made a speech. These meetings are not open to others or to the media but a recording was made and then ‘leaked’, probably quite deliberately.

Two paragraphs of the speech are above.

I’m not sure how well up on the history of the Labour Party Lord Kinnock is, but I’d assume he knows his stuff. The problem is that the history is complex and as often  nuance is important to understanding.

The first paragraph is true to the extent that Clause One of the Labour Party Constitution of 1918 drawn up by Arthur Henderson and the Webbs certainly does make it clear that Labour is a Parliamentary Party. It doesn’t say that it is exclusively so but given that its origin was in the Labour Representation Committee to 1906 we can see the drift.

Clause 4 which talks about workers by hand and by brain is by far the best known bit of the 1918 document, not least because it suggested some general socialist purpose to the Labour Party that had not been officially stated before.

I think Lord Kinnock is pushing it a bit to suggest that the 1918 Constitution clearly divorced the Labour Party from the 1917 Russian Revolution. In fact at this time those who supported it might well have been Labour members and when the Communist Party was formed dual membership was possible, as of course it was for members of the Independent Labour Party (although the ILP was affiliated and the CPGB was not). Indeed some Communist Party members were officially supported as candidates by Labour including Saklatvala who won Battersea North in the 1922 General Election as a dual candidate.

The main thrust of the 1918 constitution however was nothing to do with any of this as this Labour Party leaflet authored by Sidney Webb makes clear:

http://webbs.library.lse.ac.uk/124/1/NewConstitutionOfTheLabourParty1918.pdf

It was primarily about turning Labour into a party of individual membership- while allowing affiliation of trade unions, the ILP and others- with constituency organisation. It was also about organising female members, some of whom got the vote for the first time in 1918.

The second paragraph from Lord Kinnock’s speech above is really just his personal view. There is no doubt sense in it but historically it was hardly an issue.

Until recent times the Labour leader was elected only by Labour MPs so this was something not discussed in 1918 because it was not an issue, at least in terms of the Constitution. No doubt members and in particular trade union leaders made their views clear behind the scenes but this was not part of any formal process.

From all this we can conclude what? Labour Party history is important because it reveals that very similar issues to those faced today have been grappled with in the past (and some very different ones). It does however tell us very little about the question of how the Leadership is now decided (because the method of decision has changed).

It tells us something about the complex ways in which the Webbs knitted together a range of interests in one Labour constitution, but in reality it is not 1918 that really decides what Labour is. Rather it is what Labour members and activists make it from time to time. That is the point Gareth Stedman Jones made in his ‘Why is the Labour Party in a Mess’ (1983) about an earlier crisis of the Party (yes they have happened before..)

 

 

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