Sunday, 25 September 2011

Labour's Forgotten Prophet

Over on Comment is Free, the ubiquitous Neil Clark writes:

Whoever could have predicted that the Maastricht treaty and the introduction of the euro would lead not to a democratic workers' paradise, but to unelected bankers and officials imposing austerity and privatisation on EU member states?

Who could have predicted that closer European integration would lead to ever-rising unemployment across the continent and ordinary people effectively being forced to leave their home countries in order to find work elsewhere?

Well one man did, and his name was Peter Shore.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Shore's death. As Labour delegates head to Liverpool to consider their response to the coalition's deflationary policies, they would do well to remember the ideas – and solutions – put forward by one of the party's most brilliant intellectuals of the postwar era, a man who personified everything that was good and decent about old Labour.

Shore, who held ministerial offices in the Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s, was a democratic socialist who supported nationalisation, prices and incomes policies, Keynesian economics, import controls and national planning. With his political outlook shaped by his observation of poverty when growing up in Liverpool, Shore concluded that only increased government intervention in the economy could eliminate unemployment and lead to a more egalitarian society. His views on the positive role of the state, and the desirability of having "the commanding heights" of the economy in public ownership, were the antithesis of the laissez-faire, neoliberal policies which successive British governments, Conservative and Labour, have followed since 1979. But the passage of time has proved that it was Shore, and not Thatcherite Tories or New Labour enthusiasts for the market economy, who had got it spot on.

As trade secretary in the Harold Wilson government of 1974-76, Shore was in his element. He became a bogeyman for the free marketers when he denied landing rights to Skytrain – Freddie Laker's privately owned airline, which wanted to operate flights from London to the US. "What we are really talking about is socialism," Laker fumed, and he was right in his analysis. For Shore, preventing the "substantial damage" which would be done to British Airways, the national carrier then owned by the British people, was more important than allowing the "plundering" of the most profitable routes by privately owned companies. "It is easy enough to put on a private bus service from Marble Arch to Westminster and make it pay, but one knows very well that this will be done only at the expense of London Transport," he declared, but Laker, hailed as a "man of enterprise" by Lord Denning, won his case against the government in the high court and the decision was overturned.

In 1976, when the Callaghan government debated approaching the International Monetary Fund for a loan, Shore, now environment secretary, sided with his fellow socialist Tony Benn in arguing for an "alternative economic strategy" involving the imposition of import controls.

Once again, Shore was right: we now know that going to the IMF – which was used by the Conservatives for years afterwards to denigrate Labour's management of the economy – was not necessary. In the early 1980s, as the British manufacturing industry was sacrificed at the altar of monetarist dogma, Shore, as shadow chancellor, led the opposition. "We must restore the control over capital movements that the government, in so light-hearted a moment, threw away just two years ago. We cannot accept that the great financial institutions, the insurance companies and the pension funds, which increasingly control the collective savings of people at work throughout Britain, can transfer the savings of British employees outside the country and invest them in the industries or products of our rivals overseas", he told Parliament in 1982. Shore, never one to mince his words, called the Thatcher government's programme of privatisation for what it was: "public asset stripping".

He warned of the danger of important British industries and our infrastructure falling out of national ownership once they were privatised – which is precisely what has happened.

It was Shore's unshakeable belief that democracy and socialism were inextricably linked and it was his awareness of the threat that unelected transnational bodies, representing the interests of finance capital and big business, posed to democracy, which lay behind his unrelenting hostility towards the EEC and later the EU. "I did not," he said in 1973, "come into socialist politics in order to connive in the dismantling of the power of the British people."

The Conservative-supporting journalist Patrick Cosgrave, who predeceased Shore by eight days, wrote that "between Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, Peter Shore was the only possible Labour party leader of whom a Conservative leader had cause to walk in fear".

Sadly, Shore never became Labour leader, but with the eurozone facing an ever-deepening crisis and the outrageous iniquities of the free-market neoliberal economic system clear for all to see, it's surely time for the democratic socialist policies that he espoused to be put back on to the political agenda.

Not that he has been forgotten by some of us. All of the above, the recognition of its complete incompatibility with the European federalist project, the candidacy of his constituency right-hand man for No2EU - Yes To Democracy before it morphed into just another sectarian Leftist faction, the realisation that the social democratic project was unachievable except by means of the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament, and the consequent support for traditional parliamentary procedures, for Canadian against Spanish fishermen specifically because Canada and the United Kingdom shared a Head of State, for the Commonwealth generally, and for the retention of the Royal Yacht when neither John Redwood nor the SNP was raising a word of protest against its scrapping, whatever they both say now: some of us hold fast to the memory of it all. "Refounding Labour"? Try that, for a start.


  1. And readers of this blog have no doubt who his successor is. Not in his seat, that was the ridiculous Oona King wonderfully kicked out by the George Galloway whom Labour could only remove by running a politically identical candidate who has a real, live, actual Bengali Muslim.

    No, you are Shore's natural successor as the leader in whom the Tories have cause to walk in fear. In fact, your potential reach is far beyond swing voters and possibly over their heads altogether, deep into the Tory vote that Cameron has abandoned.

  2. I have never been able to find a full length biography of Peter Shore. Another writing project for you, Mr Lindsay?

  3. Neil might be better, and I am already rather heavily committed, but we shall see.

    Real Labour is ignored by the competing academic networks of Marxists on the one hand and, on the other hand, people who like to pretend that Marxism is the mainstream British Left.

    So, for example, there are several biographies of the entertaining but peripheral Victor Grayson, yet I believe it is correct to say that there has never been so much as an unpublished PhD thesis on Herbert Morrison's London machine. Absurd, I know.