The appointment of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 has once again brought seemingly irreconcilable ideological tensions and divisions within the Party to the fore. Whilst much ensuing commentary has been notably unequivocal about what Corbyn’s victory may now mean for the future of the Labour Party, if not British politics itself, analyses have, however, been constrained by commentator’s persistent recourse to peculiarly anachronistic and attenuated interpretative templates. Indeed, in their struggle to make sense of the numerous differences exposed by Corbyn’s unexpected ascendancy most mainstream commentators appear content to assume that we are watching simply another replay of the notorious clashes between the so-called ‘Bennite left’, and the Party’s ‘revisionist’ centre-right leadership during the 1980s. Yet, as anyone familiar with Labour Party’s often tortuous developmental history will know, intra-Party tensions have rarely been so straightforward.
On 30 June 2016, the Department of History at the University of Sheffield, is hosting a one-day academic workshop at the People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester. With funding provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the workshop will explore some of the most notable ideological factions and divisions that have emerged in the Parliamentary Labour Party since G. D. H. Cole’s and others’ founding of the Socialist League in 1932, to Corbyn’s victory in 2015. To accompany the workshop will be a small exhibition, drawing on the PHM’s unrivalled collection of British labour movement material, including the official archive of the Labour Party itself. Both the workshop and the exhibition will seek to shed fresh light on some of the key sites of historic intra-Party tension and divergence, ranging from the ‘Unity’ and ‘popular front’ activism of the 1930s, the ‘Keep Left’ and ‘Victory for Socialism’ pressure groups of the 1940s and 1950s, the recurring clashes over Clause IV and ‘unilateral disarmament’, through to the numerous ‘reformist’ and ‘revisionist’ tendencies of the 1970s, 1980s and beyond.
Whilst a principal aim of the project is to suggest how intra-Party tensions and divisions should not be regarded as anything new, it will also seek to demonstrate how such divisions have rarely – if, indeed, ever – proceeded along the straightforward ‘left’ versus ‘right’ binary that some, including certain leading voices with the Party itself, now appear intent on reviving. Correspondingly, an additional objective of the workshop is to examine the extent to which these more historic ‘Labour pains’ might not also offer potential pathways beyond the Party’s current, seemingly irreconcilable, ideological standoffs. In conclusion, the workshop hopes to furnish some (tentative) answers to the question of what, if anything, these various ‘Labour pains’, both past and present, might now be pointing to? Are we witnessing, as some would have us believe, the birth pangs of a ‘new politics’ in Britain; or is the Labour Party, 110 years after its foundation, finally entering its terminal stages?