Under Keir Starmer the Labour Party is beginning to repair the damage done by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The latest polling shows Labour ahead of the Tories by 6% for the first time in years.

But why has this required such a bitter internal struggle? It’s a story that goes back to the founding of the Labour Party in 1900.


Understanding the past is not a guide to the future, but without it, we have little option but to keep repeating mistakes. In the first of three articles on the role of the far left, broadcaster and author, Martin Plaut looks at the origins of the Labour Party.

The founding of the Labour Party at a conference on 27 – 28 February 1900 was the culmination of years of negotiations. The meeting at Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street brought together Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party, the Trades Union Congress, the Fabian Society and delegates of the Social Democratic Federation.  The founders had very mixed reasons for establishing the party. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) wanted a viable parliamentary presence, as did the unions and the Fabian Society. The unions had pushed for representation in Parliament for years, working with sympathetic Liberals: now they saw the need for their own party.

Keir Hardie was anything but an ideologue. Born in dire poverty, and having spent his early years down the mines, he wanted to improve the lot of the working class. As he later admitted, ‘the object of the conference was not to discuss first principles but to endeavour to ascertain whether organisation representing different ideals could find an immediate and practical common ground.’

Keir Hardie, first Labour leader
Keir Hardie

The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) led by Henry Hyndman, son of a wealthy businessman with plantations in Barbados, was rather different.  A Marxist, he believed (like his fellow SDF member, William Morris) in the creative power of destruction. “I despair of a peaceful solution to the inevitable class struggle even in England” he wrote, “and I fear that we must pass through the fiery furnace of ‘some fatal natural catastrophe’ to the goal of full economic freedom and organised work for all.”

This view came from a rather simplified view of Marxism and a belief that electing members of parliament was really only a step on the road to revolution.

The SDF proposed that the “representatives of the working class movement in the House of Commons shall form there a distinct party based on the recognition of the class war and having for its ultimate object the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” The ILP opposed this with a resolution “in favour of establishing a distinct Labour Group in Parliament who shall have their own whips and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to co-operate with any party which, for the time being, may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interest of Labour.”

The ILP motion was carried by 53 votes to 39. The ILP’s position’s willingness to co-operate was designed to reach out to pro-Labour Liberals, whose support had helped the ILP win seats in the past. It was hardly an auspicious beginning, and soon the cracks began to show.

A division opened up between the SDF and the groups that formed the Labour Alliance – the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, the ILP and the Fabians. Some in the SDF called for a ‘vanguardist’ position – requiring their party leave Labour. ‘Should we mix with the slow moving crowd…or should we rather dash forward, place ourselves in front and explain to the crowd the meaning and the significance of the road…’ Marxism – these comrades believe – provided them with an exclusive insight into the necessary crisis of Capitalism and all that was required was to enlighten the working class and the revolution would be under way. As one SDF member put it: the party should be the “head of the lance.”

The SDF were only members of the Labour Party (or Labour Representation Committee, as it was then called) for a short period. The committee included two members from the SDF and the ILP, one member of the Fabian Society, and seven trade unionists. The SDF felt they had little control over policy and gradually broke away. 

Yet soon members of the SDF were regretting the split. “We have to capture rather than oppose it,” declared a London SDF member. “It is the only material, however resistant at present, which we can hope to shape to our purpose, that of bringing about a Socialist Commonwealth.” By no means all SDF members were in favour of this view, and in 1911 they formed the British Socialist Party, sealing the division.

The division between the SDF hard-left and the pragmatic socialism of the Labour Party – backed by the Fabians and the majority of the TUC – goes back to the very birth of the party. Ever since Marxist factions have bitterly regretted leaving the party and attempting to go on their own – with negligible success. Instead, they have attempted to “capture rather than oppose” the Labour Party. How they did this in the 1980’s with Militant and in recent years, with Corbyn, will be the subject of the next two articles.

In the second of three articles on the role of the far left within politics, broadcaster and author Martin Plaut explores the rise of the Militant Tendency faction in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The rise of the Militant Tendency in the 1970’s and 80’s, and the fight against it, is probably etched on the memories of everyone who experienced it. It can be traced back to four key issues.

  1. The far left was in at the formation of the Labour Party in 1900, until the Social Democratic Federation left. Some Marxists established their own parties – like the Communist Party of Great Britain and its successors. Others accepted Leon Trotsky’s analysis of 1934 that parties of the far left would only succeed by entering and taking over mass based social democratic parties. This was termed ‘entryism’. The origins of Militant go back to the 1950’s and one such Trotskyist group – the Revolutionary Socialist League.
  2. Disillusionment among Labour members about the achievements of Labour leaders. Labour governments under Wilson (1964 – ’70, 74 – 76) and Callaghan (1976 – ‘79) had won power, but had always kept the far left at bay. Ordinary members felt they had little say in the direction of the party. The leader was selected solely by the Parliamentary Party and the resolutions passed at party conference were often ignored, as irrelevant or impractical.
  3. The economic crisis of the 1970’s and ‘80’s saw one industry after another collapse. British Leyland finally closed in ’86, despite years of state aid. The miners strikes of 1969, ’72 and ’84-85, left many wondering if capitalism really was on its last legs.
  4. The long tenure of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher (1979 – ’90) made it seem there was no parliamentary road to socialism.

Just how a tiny far-left group capitalised on these to pose a threat to Labour can be read in Nick Thomas-Symonds’s article – A history of Militant entryism in the Labour Party. [https://labourlist.org/2016/08/a-history-of-militant-entryism-in-the-labour-party/]

Militant’s progress was at first tolerated by Labour leader Michael Foot, but in the end, he realised they had to be resisted. By then Militant and their allies had a strong hold on the party. Two Militant MPs were elected: Terry Fields and Dave Nellist. Militant also took over the Labour Party Young Socialists, which helped them recruit members. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Foot persuaded the National Executive to investigate Militant in 9 December 1981.

in February 1983, the NEC expelled the known members of the “editorial board” of Militant – in reality their central committee. These included Ted Grant. The group still had a tight grip on Liverpool. The Militant controlled Council tried to defy central government, to run a deficit budget irrespective of Tory government constraints. By September 1985 the Council was going bankrupt and redundancy notices were sent to all staff.

This gave Neil Kinnock (Labour leader 1983 – ’92) the chance he needed. At the 1985 conference he made a speech attacking Militant.

 “I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises.  They start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that: outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs.  And you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour Council – a Labour Council – hiring taxis, to scuttle round a city, handing out redundancy notices, to its own workers.”

The tide had turned. In October 1986 Kinnock persuaded the party to expel Militant.

As Thomas-Symonds’ argues: “In doing so, Kinnock was giving a stark reminder of the choice made by the Labour leaders after the First World War. The 1918 Labour Party Constitution, drafted only months after the Russian Revolution, made clear the Labour Party’s governing purpose: ‘to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.’  It was parliamentary socialism, not revolutionary socialism.”

How did Militant do it?

Militant was a true party-within-a-party, with its own members, meetings and rigid discipline. It ran summer camps at which ideology and tactics were discussed. This allowed their members (some 5,000 in the early ‘80’s) to control party meetings. Part of the strategy involved what are termed “transitional demands.” These are issues that are beyond the achievement of any elected MP or Councillor, and are used to discredit them in the eyes of ordinary members.

This gives a flavour of how control was achieved.

“First, make the meetings boring. Flood the branches and constituency meetings with procedural requests, the minutes of the last meeting and process.

This turns off the faint-hearted. Those with better things to do – attend to their family, careers or community groups – simply no longer turn up.

Part two: make the event adversarial. Uncomradely questions to sitting councillors and the MP, challenging the chair’s method and motive, defining the politics of the speaker before they have defined their own – all these things to become the norm. 

This behaviour basically reduces the attendance of the remaining sensible types. Then the meeting [is] ours to control.

Now for the piece de resistance. Once the troublesome moderates – organised or otherwise – are out of the way, motions and debates on policy and political positions will commence. Each will pass almost by acclaim. 

No need for speeches against. If there is, allow it to be taken by the pantomime villain from the rump of “Labour right” attending membership. 

From here on it will be easy and the minutes often reflect the result of debates as “unanimous”. 

Subsequent speeches at Labour gatherings – Labour party conference and the like – will then be narrated with how much support they got at constituency Labour party level.” 

This 1981 documentary is worth watching.

In the final article of his series on the role of the far left within politics, broadcaster and author Martin Plaut examines the Corbyn years and the Momentum machine. 

This is a story that is far from over and is therefore much more difficult to put in perspective. Some issues – such as anti-Semitism and the leaked report from party HQ are the subject of internal and external enquiries and we need to wait for their conclusions. Nonetheless, it is possible to draw some tentative lessons from what has taken place.

The election of Corbyn in September 2015 can be seen at least in part as a reaction against the Blair/Brown years in office (1997 – 2010), which left many Labour members disillusioned with the Labour leadership. The Iraq war (and Blair’s support for President Bush) hung over the party. Ed Miliband (who had been narrowly elected after the left chose him, rather than his brother David) had failed to win the May 2015 election, seeing all but one of Labour’s MPs in Scotland lose their seats.

There was a general sense of depression inside Labour; a feeling that the party had run out of ideas and inspiring leaders. Against this background a small group of MPs and left wing activists met to select who should stand for party leader. Rather reluctantly Jeremy Corbyn recognised it was his turn to throw his hat into the ring. That is the established narrative.

A group of left-wing members came together under the leadership of Jon Lansman, who had joined the party in 1977 and who came into politics as an aide to the former left-wing MP, Tony Benn (who died in 2014). Momentum was founded to campaign for Corbyn, who struck a chord with members and succeeded in winning the party leadership in the first round.

Corbyn’s victory brought together a coalition of members working with a range of organisations. These ranged from the Stop the War Coalition (which Corbyn had chaired) and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (which Tony Benn had chaired) to trade unions, including Unite (formerly the Transport and General Workers’ Union). The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was chaired by Dave Nellist – the former Labour MP expelled for his membership of Militant.

What was unique about Corbyn’s leadership of the party was that it took as an assumption that there were no enemies on the left. As a result, a number of far-left groups aligned themselves with the new leader. Trotskyist movements and Communist groupings worked together in ways that would have had been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

Exactly how this was organised will need careful research, but initially anyone could join Momentum. This included the Socialist Workers Party and the Alliance for Workers Liberty (formerly Socialist Organiser) which had previously been bitterly opposed to Labour.

Seamus Milne and Jeremy Corbyn

More important were organisations aligned with the Communist Party. Two key figures stand out: Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray. Both had been associated with a monthly journal called Straight Left, which was associated with the “Stalinist”, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction that eventually split from the Communist Party of Great Britain. Murray, originally a Morning Star journalist, had been first chair of the Stop the War campaign and in 2011 was appointed chief of staff for the Unite trade union. He was seconded to work as one of Corbyn’s closest advisers. Milne had been a Guardian journalist; whose controversial pro-Putin and anti-European Union views caused many a row inside the paper. He became Corbyn’s director of communications. Together with Karie Murphy (Corbyn’s executive director) and Len McCluskey, (general secretary of Unite), these were the “Four Ms” who controlled the Corbyn leadership office.

They shared a deep distrust of the European Union (a view Corbyn had inherited from his mentor, Tony Benn) and a hostility to the United States and all that America stands for.  Corbyn’s half-hearted support for the Remain campaign was at least partly responsible for the failure of the party to mobilise its members in the 2016 EU referendum. The campaign was narrowly lost, with 51.89% of the public voting to leave.

While the Stalinists formed the praetorian guard round Corbyn, the Trotskyists were busy organising Momentum. At its height Momentum was a powerful organisation. It was entirely separate from the Labour Party, with a company Jon Lansman controlled privately owning the data of its members and supporters. It had its own staff and its own campaigns. Among these were the successful The World Transformed political festivals, held during Labour Party conferences. A number of media and social media houses backed Corbyn and Momentum. These included SkwawkboxThe Canary and Novara media. Together they were a powerful mobilising force, which perhaps saw their finest moment when thousands chanted Corbyn’s name at the 2017 Glastonbury festival.

Since the 2019 election, which saw Labour go down to its worst defeat since 1935, Momentum has suffered a series of splits. This does not mean that the far left are no longer a force inside the party, but their influence under Keir Starmer has certainly diminished.

Martin Plaut is a South African/British journalist and historian, who worked for the BBC World Service for 27 years. He is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.