Order Online


Recent Titles

The Spokesman


Bertrand Russell


Philosophical Writings


Socialist Renewal


Peace & 

Human Rights


Socialist Classics

Labour History


New Thinkers' Library


Noam Chomsky

Kurt Vonnegut

Tony Benn

Ken Coates


Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation




A-Z by Author

A-Z Books





Contact Us



How to Lose a War

The Spokesman, 90

Dianne Hayter, Fightback! Labour’s traditional right in the 1970s and 1980s, Manchester University Press, hardback ISBN 0719072700 £60.00, paperback

ISBN 0719072719 £14.99



This claims to be an insiders’ account of how the right wing in the Labour Party regained the traditional pre-eminence it appeared to have lost following the fall of the Callaghan Government in 1979, thus preparing the way for its triumphant return in the form of New Labour.


In 1960 the left-right battle had swung towards the left with the adoption of a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament at the Scarborough Conference – thanks to dedicated organisation by the Party’s rank and file. This victory was ignored by the leadership – particularly in the Parliamentary Labour Party, who refused to acknowledge that the Party’s official position had changed – and was subsequently reversed.


The rank and file took the position that there was little point in working to gain support for policies within the Party if, once carried, these were ignored by the leadership. They argued that the Party belonged to its members (which was certainly true at law) and not to a handful of Members of Parliament who had always assumed they had the right to appoint the Leader and determine the Party’s policy. Although the Party was set up by trade unionists, they had always deferred to their parliamentary colleagues.


This approach led to the formation in the 1970s of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), dedicated to securing constitutional changes that would make the Party more democratic, and more accountable to its members. It is generally accepted that it was CLPD’s success in securing the mandatory reselection of MPs by their constituencies before each general election that was the final straw that led to the breakaway of a right faction to form the SDP in 1981.  They were so out of sympathy with their constituency parties and the National Executive that they were afraid they would not be re-adopted by their constituencies and therefore had nothing to lose by going it alone.


Hayter describes the limited efforts of the right in Parliament to organize against the left-controlled National Executive Committee, but she sees them as more concerned to safeguard their own jobs rather than to take up positions of principle which might leave them vulnerable to attack.


Much more effective, in Hayter’s view, were the trade unionists in the secret St Ermine’s Group whose aims were:

‘taking control of the NEC and then to fashion the party outside the House into an election-winning entity. This would mean expelling Militant, changing head-office personnel and concentrating on winning back public support. Their first service to the party was not to defect in the aftermath of Wembly (1981); their second was to take control of the NEC by 1982: their third was to deliver the leadership to Kinnock, in whom they saw someone equally committed to the task of returning to government’.


By 1987, the right had gained control. Kinnock was leader and felt strong enough to start reshaping policy. With trade union backing he launched a Policy Review at the ’87 Conference which, by ’91, resulted in four reports which formed the basis of the 1992 manifesto. The Party dropped its opposition to the Common Market and returned to its traditional positions on defence and the mixed economy.


With the death of John Smith, in 1994, and the election of Tony Blair as leader, the ground was prepared for the further reforms of New Labour – restructuring the National Executive Committee to bring it under the control of Downing Street, together with the Party apparatus, with a so-called Chairman appointed by the Prime Minister. ‘Spin’ and ‘control’, the result of secret machinations of groups such as St Ermine’s, became apparent for all to see, so that the Party became a laughing-stock to the general public and repugnant to its membership, which fell from 400,000 to less than 200,000 over the period of the Labour Government.


Opportunist to the end, the self-styled modernizers are now seeking to turn to their advantage the scandal of undeclared loans to the Labour Party in exchange for hoped-for peerages. They are arguing that such abuses would not occur if political parties were funded by the state. They would thus achieve their dream of doing away with members altogether; the political parties would thus become self-perpetuating oligarchies, answerable to no one but themselves.


At present we have an electoral system that has not produced majority rule since 1931 – the year of Labour’s great débâcle. It could perhaps be defended on the grounds that single-member constituencies can, in theory, select their own Members of Parliament. There doesn’t seem to be much other justification for a system which never manages to achieve democracy – that is, rule by the majority. With selection of MPs controlled by party officials with subventions from the state, ties with local constituencies will become meaningless, as with many of the continental party list systems, and our present electoral system will lose all legitimacy.


The trend towards secret manipulation, started by the St Ermine’s Group, must be countered by moves towards openness and transparency at all levels in the Labour Party. The work of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy is more important than ever.


Richard Fletcher


Independent News Collective


Spokesman Books,

 Russell House,

Bulwell Lane,




contact us


tel: 0115 970 8318 | fax: 0115 942 0433