The New Statesman led its Labour Party conference edition with a series of “New Times” pieces, in emulation of the 1988 Marxism Today special of that title. For people of a certain age, Marxism Today remains talismanic. It was where the future was debated on the left in the 1980s, in a spirit of intellectual openness and curiosity. It analysed and probed culture, as much as politics and economics, and stood for broad anti-Thatcherite alliances. It featured progressive Tories on its pages, as well as feminists, greens and eurocommunist Marxists. Remarkably, (but characteristically) you could buy it in WHSmith.
It was also a potent source of intellectual renewal for the Labour Party in the 1980s. Although it was originally a Communist Party magazine, it consistently engaged in debate with Labour MPs and intellectuals, seeking to understand the popular appeal of Thatcherism and its place in history, and to sketch out paths forward from the ruins of post-war Keynesianism and the ossified, dying cultures of the industrial Labour movement. It was everything the Trotskyist, Bennite and Old Labour right were not.
The key receptacles of this intellectual debate in the Labour Party were the soft left and its leading thinkers: MPs like Bryan Gould, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown. In the 1980s, the soft left had an important place in the Labour Party’s modernisation. Where the right provided organizational ballast, the soft left provided ideas and energy. They were trusted with the party’s values, but also its intellectual journey to the future. They understood the importance of winning elections, but they fed off wider social movements and organisations, like environmentalism and Charter 88, and engaged with Labour’s grassroots in local government and the trade unions.
To get a feel for the interplay of ideas that took place between the Labour soft left and Communist Party modernisers in the late 1980s, read this exchange from the Marxism Today archive between Bryan Gould, David Blunkett, Bea Campbell and Charlie Leadbeater. It ranges across political strategy, theory, and substantive issues of economic and democratic reform. Something of the soft left’s modernising impatience comes across: Gould talks about “leapfrogging” Thatcherism, while also displaying the economic radicalism that was later to cost him his career. Blunkett meanwhile combines electoral realism with a participatory democratic impatience with “parliamentarianism”.
This exchange would be inconceivable today, and not just because the Communist Party of Great Britain folded in the early 1990s. The contemporary Labour soft left has become a shadow of its former self. As the 1990s and 2000s wore on, its luminaries deserted, departed or died, and it proved incapable of renewing itself. In the last two Labour leadership elections, the soft left torch was carried by Owen Smith and Andy Burnham. It did not burn brightly. Rather than contest the terrain of ideas with Corbyn, both chose to surrender the intellectual field to him.
If Labour’s moderates are to stand any chance of political renewal, they will need to rediscover the party’s soft-left traditions, not simply in name, but in spirit and substance. These traditions have become associated with political ineptitude and intellectual torpor, but it was not always thus. The soft left was an important ingredient, not just in the recovery of the Labour Party in the 1980s, but in the birth of New Labour in the mid-1990s – precisely when Tony Blair was at his most ecumenical. He too graced the pages of Marxism Today, though the magazine would come to disown his project. The soft left contributed ideas and energy that a leader from the right of the party absorbed. There is an enduring lesson in that.