According to Marx, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The re-running of the culture wars of the 1980s within the Labour Party may be farcical, but they are certainly not funny. Then, the Labour Right was consistently on the wrong side of history, denigrating every attempt to open the party up to women, black and Asian people, and the LGBT community.
Peter Tatchell, the party’s candidate in the infamous Bermondsey by-election of 1983, was thrown to the wolves amid virulent homophobia, and the local old guard backed a “Real Labour” independent whose intervention gifted the seat to the Lib Dems. Neil Kinnock claimed he represented the “balls wing” of the party, and was quoted in the Daily Express as saying: “I’m not in favour of witch-hunts, but I do not mistake bloody witches for fairies”. In 1987, his press secretary Patricia Hewitt (a former general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties, don’t laugh) wrote that: “The ‘Loony Labour left’ is taking its toll; the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear among pensioners”.
Achieving black representation was extraordinarily difficult, with Sharon Atkin and Martha Osamor removed as parliamentary candidates. The Right did everything it could to turn Labour’s Women’s Conference into an empty talk shop. Dialogue with Sinn Féin was seen as treason.
Ken Livingstone, who as Leader of the Greater London Council from 1981-6 took the brave step of promoting black, gay and women’s issues and representation, was treated as persona non-grata by the Labour leadership on the other side of the Thames. The Right endorsed the depiction by the tabloid press of Council leaders who took up similar positions as “loony left” – none more so than Britain’s first black female Council leaders, Linda Bellos and Merle Amory.
Three decades later and it is the Corbyn-phobic minority that promotes itself as the defender of diversity. No slur has been too flimsy and no blow too low when it comes to discrediting leading Corbyn supporters. Ironically, many of those under attack then are now being attacked from the opposite direction. So Ken Livingstone is just a vile old anti-semite. Marc Wadsworth, pioneer of Black Sections and a founder of the Anti-Racist Alliance, has been thrown out as a racist. Tony Greenstein, the son of a rabbi, apparently moonlights as an anti-semite. Veteran Jewish socialists Moshe Machover and Glyn Secker have only had their suspensions – again for anti-semitism – lifted after a storm of protest.
Meanwhile victimhood envelops the Labour Right, which just can’t grasp how and why it became so unpopular. Have a political disagreement with the likes of Jess Phillips – who famously declared she was willing to stab Jeremy Corbyn “in the front, not the back” – and you are likely to face allegations of misogyny.
So why has the Right chosen the terrain of “diversity strands”? Part of the answer lies in the development of capitalism since the culture wars of the 1980s. Neo-liberalism long ago adopted the tactic of appearing to promote a diversity agenda while simultaneously attacking trade union and employment rights. From this, New Labour derived the idea that aspiration and opportunity could be used as a counterweight to class and genuine empowerment.
The second part of the answer is that when it comes to policies, the Right’s cupboard is bare. Even the more stupid representatives of those yapping at Corbyn’s heels have worked out that New Labour totems like outsourcing, privatisation and flexible labour markets are deeply unpopular, and barely raised a criticism of Labour 2017 manifesto. Better to retreat to the muddied waters of identity politics.
There is one delicious irony. Martha Osamor’s daughter Kate now sits on Labour’s front bench, while Neil Kinnock’s son Stephen – once spoken of as a leader in waiting – has been reduced to hoping enough television presenters keep polishing his ego by referring to him as a “senior MP”.