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Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

It is not just a trick of the calendar that early January seems like a time of new beginnings, at least here in northern Europe.

The days are starting to feel longer again, and whatever the weather may throw at us in the next few weeks, there will always be spring and fresh green shoots not far ahead. The duality of looking backwards and forwards, and passing through a gateway, is recognised in the name of the month of Janus.

In politics, the holiday period sometimes provides a reset, in which time spent out of the hothouse of Westminster and with families restores a bit of perspective and what may seem like a vital struggle in December looks like a storm in a teacup in January.

It is not an infallible rule – the Westland affair straddled 1985 and 1986, and 2017 so far looks like picking up exactly where the wild ride of 2016 dropped us.

The New Year inspires some people to start new political projects and parties. It may be little noted elsewhere, but today marks the coming of age of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), founded on 13 January 1996 by National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) President Arthur Scargill.

The immediate cause of Scargill’s breach with the Labour Party was the party’s approval of abandoning the old Clause IV and its commitment to common ownership. It marked a point where a part of the traditional left decided that the Labour Party under Blair was beyond redemption. The patience of others of rather similar views like Jeremy Corbyn, who waited for the wheel to turn again, turned out to be justified, at least from their point of view.

Alastair Campbell did not express any disappointment in his diary about the breakaway: “I put out a line to PA [Press Association] that it was a powerful signal how much we had changed. Arthur was locked in the politics of half a century ago. It also dented the Tory line that the stakeholder economy speech signalled a return to union power.”

The SLP attracted more support than many such ventures do, with Scargill joined by left wing notables like film director Ken Loach, and more working class and trade union support than is usual for the far left, but no MPs. It has struggled electorally, with its high point being 6.8 per cent in the East Ham constituency in May 1997. It was a long way from Scargill’s triumphs as the organiser of picketing in the miners’ strike of 1972 or leading one side of a class conflict in 1984.

The SLP occupies a fairly narrow slice of the ideological spectrum, being opposed to Communist Party and Trotskyite factions and devoted to left symbolism such as mourning ‘comrade Fidel’ and honouring Soviet, even Stalinist, history. In the referendum, it lined up in favour of leaving the EU.

The history of the SLP is one that has been written and re-written countless times, with different dates, actors and issues but the same basic story. In January 1976 Labour MPs Jim Sillars and John Robertson formed the Scottish Labour Party (another SLP…), which had a brief flowering of enthusiasm from Scottish intellectuals but did not put down roots and vanished when its MPs lost their seats in 1979.

Its long-term significance was as an opening from the left to Scottish Nationalism. Sillars went on to join the SNP and won the Glasgow Govan by-election in 1988.

Splinters from Labour were not only to the left. The most important breakaway reached a crucial moment in January 1981 when the Limehouse Declaration was made by the ‘Gang of Four’, calling on Labour to return to its social democratic roots after the victories of the left on policy and internal organisation in 1979-81.

Although the SDP itself was not formally founded until March, Limehouse was the moment when it started to exist in people’s minds. Other splinters to the right were less significant – National Labour and Mosley’s New Party in 1931, the National Democratic and Labour Party (NDLP) during and shortly after the Great War, and even tinier groups like Desmond Donnelly’s Democratic Party (1969).

On another 13 January, in 1893, there was a new venture of rather greater significance. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was founded at a conference in Bradford.

Following an outbreak of industrial unrest, local labour parties had been established in a number of West Yorkshire towns and the ILP merged these bodies. It attracted the support of the Independent Labour MP Keir Hardie, but it was primarily a grass-roots initiative to establish a socialist party that would organise and contest elections.

This was distinct from the quest for working class and trade union representation in Parliament, which started with the ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs elected as Liberals, the occasional Conservative working class candidacy (James Mawdsley in Oldham in 1899), and the Labour Representation Committee of 1900, which became the core of the Labour Party.

The ILP always had a separate organisation and identity from Labour, even after affiliating to the party. After Labour became a party of government in the 1920s there were strains between the pragmatic trade unionism that dominated Labour and the idealism of the ILP; the ILP disaffiliated in 1932 and set out on its own.

It was an electoral force in a few areas, particularly Glasgow, until the death of its charismatic leader James Maxton in 1946, at which point its MPs joined the Parliamentary Labour Party. While it stopped contesting elections, it remains in existence as Independent Labour Publications. The ILP is refreshingly reasonable and non-sectarian among the various left groups, and is more or less in line with the politics of people like Clive Lewis and Owen Jones.

This brief canter through the history of Labour breakaways has not even attempted to cover the history of the far left in all its complexity – there are two other entire traditions out there, the Communist Party and the various splinters of the Trotskyite movement.

It would take a book to do it justice, and fortunately Evan Smith of the Hatful of History blog has done this for the period since 1956 in his 2014 book Against the Grain. The interested reader is also advised to seek out a copy of David Boothroyd’s fascinating and meticulously researched 2001 Guide to the History of British Political Parties.

The left is more culturally disposed to splitting and breakaways than the right, at least in Britain. It is often said, accurately, that the Labour Party is founded more on Methodism than Marx, and the confluence of those two streams explains a lot about why the left splits and why theological analogies are appropriate.

At its core, the Protestant tradition is about individual conscience and the right to read and interpret sacred texts, and to found new churches when a new interpretation is made, or when the old church abuses its authority. In this light, Scargill’s party was an understandable response to the adoption of heretical doctrines by the Labour Party.

One of the fascinating, unique things about the British Labour Party and its history is the contribution of Catholicism to the culture of a radical party. The Irish Catholic working class electorate was among the first voting blocs to adhere to Labour in the 1900-22 period, and there is something Catholic about the loyalty and love that Labour people have for their party, an institution that they know is flawed and often complain about in private but will vehemently defend against outside criticism.

Even when the main non-conservative party of government was the Liberal Party, it was prone to breakaways. Some of these drifted into the embrace of the Conservatives – for instance the Liberal Unionists (1886), Constitutionalists (1924) and the National Liberals (1931 vintage), and others found their way back to the main party like the National Liberals (1917 vintage). Both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party hybridised with Liberal ideas and politicians in the 1920s.

The British centre-right, by contrast, has tended not to suffer from breakaways and splinters. This distinguishes it from the far right, which has a farcical history of splits and personality conflicts between its would-be Führers. Individual defectors from the Conservatives to the centre and left have been absorbed into Liberal, SDP and Labour parties rather than setting up new forces.

Tendencies to the right, which have sometimes looked like nascent new parties, have usually been intended to pressure the Conservative Party in the desired direction rather than supplant it. This was the case with the shadowy Anti-Waste and Empire Free Trade movements in the inter-war years, and to some extent the Referendum Party in 1997.

Although in sociological and doctrinal terms the Church of England has not been ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ for many years, the imprint of Anglicanism is still there in the culture of the Tories. The Tories and the Church of England tend to broad tolerance of ideology and style, from evangelical to High Church to essentially agnostic, as long as the formalities and pieties are observed.

If the Labour Party is more Methodism than Marx, then the Conservatives are more Anglican than Ayn Rand, and can pat themselves on the back accordingly. Happy New Year.

31 comments for: Lewis Baston: Why the British left tends to split, and the right doesn’t

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