The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or: How the 1980s Soft Left is Making a Comeback

The soft left of Labour is often imprecisely defined—but exploring the political effects of the 'left-wing but not voting with the left' faction in the 80s teaches us a lot about its possible trajectory today.

7 min read

Few terms have been as used and abused in the past six years as “hard left” and “soft left”. The latter has encompassed everyone from Hilary Benn and Sadiq Khan to Clive Lewis and Nadia Whittome. Angela Rayner has described herself as ‘soft left’.

Until 2015 this flame was being kept alive by Compass, a small organisation of MPs and wonks with a tendency to waffle and a small base among Labour Party members, principally in London. Chuka Umunna was close to them at one time, as was Sam Tarry and seemingly still is Lisa Nandy. Angela Rayner was not. Soft left politics had, thanks to Compass, come to be associated with a sort of post-Eurocommunist vibe, which claimed that class as a political motor was dead, but that ‘radical’ politics could still win in the form of progressive social causes thanks to proportional representation and alliances with Greens and Lib Dems.

But the origins of the soft left, who held the balance of power for a time in the 1980s, were far from the cuddly, progressive image cultivated in later years. As a clear grouping, it emerged in Parliament from members of the left-wing Tribune Group who did not support Tony Benn’s 1981 deputy leadership bid. Those MPs who did support Benn quit to form the Socialist Campaign Group, and the Tribune Group soon descended into a fan club for Kinnock’s leadership before becoming defunct in the 1990s.

This new ‘left-wing but not voting for the left’ faction needed back-up outside the House of Commons, of course. After many waited quietly to see who won the Miners’ Strike—left deputy leader candidate Michael Meacher cast the decisive NEC vote against the National Union of Mineworkers1—this back-up materialised when Meacher, Sheffield councillor David Blunkett, and Tom Sawyer of the left-wing National Union of Public Employees (now part of UNISON) announced their intention to break away from the NEC left bloc and support the leadership. One stated aim was supposedly to try and make Neil Kinnock less dependent on the right of the Party, and to appeal and strengthen his better and more socialist side to halt the already obvious rightward drift.2

Far from supporting the progressive ‘new social movements’, as the terminology of the time described them, the soft left on the NEC—which later included Robin Cook and Clare Short—unanimously backed the right when it came to blocking Black Sections activists like Sharon Atkin and Martha Osamor from selection3, while the soft left Labour Coordinating Committee was instrumental in the right’s war on the ‘loony left’ in councils such as Lambeth, whom the right despised for putting gay rights, women’s liberation, and anti-imperialism on the agenda. As early as 1982, when the press and Labour Right whipped up a homophobic red scare about Peter Tatchell’s selection in Bermondsey, Michael Foot (who vigorously opposed Benn) denounced Tatchell. Foot was supported by soft left MPs Peter Shore and Jeff Rooker.4

Far from supporting the new social movements, the soft left on the NEC backed the right in blocking Black Sections activists from selection, while the soft left LCC was instrumental in the right’s war on the ‘loony left’.

The LCC, after being set up by Bennite intellectuals, soon became an organising vehicle for the soft left to end Bennite influence in the CLPs. They often issued radical-sounding policy papers, while voting and organising hand-in-glove with the right to smash the left. The arguments deployed publicly often consisted of despair at the ‘abrasive’ and confrontational nature of the ‘hard left’, pleas for unity, and the belief that Thatcherism could not be fundamentally challenged, however much “we” might want that. They were quietly aided by many in the Communist Party, proudly described by former Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques as having been in the 1980s “the ideological protagonist against the hard left”.5

If all of this seems like ancient history, look at the number of Socialist Campaign Group MPs who were offered frontbench roles by Keir Starmer, accepted them, and have remained loyally and quietly voting with the whip while Starmer shifts the Party to the right. (Then note how many of these nominated Angela Rayner for Deputy Leader.)

Look at the tricks which were pulled to get Momentum—supposedly the shock troops of the hard left—to support not Richard Burgon for Deputy, but Angela Rayner: a former right-wing trade union bureaucrat with nothing more to connect her to the Labour left than a flatshare with Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Look at the new ‘Love Socialism’ grouping, which unites Campaign Group MPs who serve or have served on Starmer’s frontbench with those to their right and promises “progressive” and “cooperative” ways of working now they have dropped the “Hate Brexit” from their name (if not their Google results).6

Look at Steve Turner’s HuffPo interview where he pledged to be less confrontational with the leadership than Howard Beckett, defending Khan and Andy Burnham against Unite members who campaigned against their policies as employers.

Look at the way certain columnists and staffers associated with the Corbyn era are keeping their distance from Corbyn and preparing to throw their weight in with a less confrontational candidate now that Starmer’s leadership appears fatally wounded. Needless to say, many of the same people wanted to give Starmer a chance, and many are backing Turner in Unite.

What really unites the original soft left in the union bureaucracy and PLP with their modern-day successors there and in Momentum, Unite and the media is not even their careerism or opportunism, but a deeply held pessimism about the possibility for change coupled with an outsized belief in their own numbers and significance. It combines a pessimism about the left ever having the numbers to take control of the Labour Party and win over the electorate with the delusion that a small group of former leftists can nonetheless exert meaningful influence on a Labour Right leader after their elevation. If the past is anything to go by, as Eric Shaw noted, far from pushing leaders to the left, the rightward drifts which begin as naked ambition often end up justifying themselves retrospectively as the drifters’ beliefs follow suit.7 Being determines consciousness indeed.

What unites the original soft left with their successors is not even their careerism or opportunism, but a deeply held pessimism about the possibility for change coupled with an outsized belief in their own numbers and significance.

The real-world impact of the soft left has only ever actually been to divide and weaken the left in Labour, as was seen again in their campaign for PR in NEC constituency section elections. Not only did they support the expulsions of the 1980s, they participated in all the steps taken to disempower members in the name of a unified, disciplined Party, resulting in the exodus of thousands of those who had joined in the Bennite upsurge of the 1970s.

Two things will determine soon whether the effective soft left—the bureaucrats who talk left and vote right rather than the groovy hippies who make up a tiny number of Party members – has its day in the spotlight again soon. Firstly, if they succeed—supported again by the Communist Party - in making Steve Turner General Secretary of Unite (which may yet still turn out to be the least bad option for the left) then encouraging him to reprise Sawyer’s role as the left-originating trade unionist who shifts camps and reins in his union’s criticisms of the leadership. Secondly, if they can persuade enough Socialist Campaign Group MPs not to nominate a ‘divisive’ left candidate for members to choose from in the case of a leadership election, instead ‘unifying’ around someone like Rayner, Burnham or Miliband, in the process denying what is still the largest grouping of Party members the chance to vote for someone who represents their views. If this happens it is hard to believe that the Campaign Group, set up in the wake of a split over tactics around leadership elections, has a future in its current form.

History cannot tell us whether the soft left’s short but crucial 1980s period of influence was a contributory factor to Labour’s low ebb and successive election defeats or simply a symptom of the sickness of the Party at the time, but the defection of left figures to compromise and muzzled criticism led to the demobilisation and defeat of the left in Labour for a generation. Many were later mistreated by Kinnock after their usefulness had passed, but few returned to the left. Sawyer became General Secretary of the Party under Tony Blair and Blunkett one of the most reactionary Labour cabinet ministers in history. Meacher was thanked across the NEC table by Kinnock for betraying the miners—“You won’t lose by this, Michael”8—but was betrayed and marginalised over the coming years, and later returned to the Campaign Group. Time will tell if today’s left MPs, spokespeople and trade union representatives are determined to re-learn the lessons of the Kinnock years the hard way.

  1. Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee. 1992. Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party. London: Verso, p. 59. 

  2. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys. 1997. The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour. London: Verso, pp. 212-3. 

  3. Heffernan and Marqusee, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, p.77, 268. 

  4. Peter Tatchell. 1983. The Battle for Bermondsey. London: Heretic Press, p. 58. 

  5. Heffernan and Marqusee, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, p. 64. 

  6. Fans of 1980s soft left social conservatism might also like Clive Lewis nominator, leading light of “Love Socialism” and former vice chair of the Pro-life APPG Rachael Maskell’s views on abortion

  7. Eric Shaw. 1979. The Labour Party Since 1979: Crisis and Transformation. London: Routledge, p. 163. “Members of the soft left joined the front bench in the hope of influencing party policy as well as to further their careers but, for some at least, it was their views that were more often altered.” 

  8. Heffernan and Marqusee, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, p. 59. 


Nicky Hutchinson