The influence of the Communist Party of Great Britain on New Labour has been neglected. One day it will be an important subject for a dissertation or PhD by a university graduate. It is not merely the case that a significant number of figures in the Government machine - John Reid, David Triesman, Peter Mandelson, Charlie Whelan to name a few - belonged to the Communist Party of Great Britain in all its King Street grandeur.
Many others - Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn among them - were connected in one way or another with the obscure sub-Marxist organisations that abounded in the 1970s, doing their best to tear down capitalism. Even those, like Jack Straw, who had no Marxist sympathies at all, were obliged to come to terms with communist methods and adversaries in the shadowy internecine struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. It is these methods - as opposed to the now despised Marxist dogma about ownership of the means of production - that have endured to influence the Blair Government. Millbank admittedly borrowed its technology - rebuttal units, the Excalibur computer etc - from the United States. But the obsessive secrecy, centralisation and intolerance of dissent which were such overwhelming characteristics of the Millbank operation reek of the CPGB.
David Triesman was a significant figure of the Euro-communist movement of the 1970s, an attempt to give communism a 'human face'. Thirty years on and he is attempting a comparable exercise with New Labour.
Tony Blair was once a Trot!” Variations of this headline appear on most news sites today. In an interview with historian Peter Hennessy on Radio 4, Blair has spoken of how Isaac Deutscher's masterful biography of Trotsky briefly drew him to revolutionary socialism.
“Here’s this guy Trotsky, who was so inspired by all of this that he went out to create a Russian revolution and changed the world,” Blair recalled. “I think it’s a very odd thing – just literally it was like a light going on.” Pressed on whether he was “briefly a Trot”, Blair replied: “In that sense I was.”
The story isn't strictly new. Blair has previously cited Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy (The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, The Prophet Outcast) as one of his favourite works. In a 1982 letter to Michael Foot, unearthed in 2006, Blair wrote: "Like many middle class people I came to Socialism through Marxism (to be more specific through Deutscher's biography of Trotsky)". But the story is perhaps eye-catching enough to be worth telling twice.
Yet Blair is actually rare among New Labour figures in having only, as he puts it, "toyed with Marxism". Peter Mandelson, one of the project's architects, joined the Young Communist League, rather than Labour, in protest at Harold Wilson's support for the Vietnam war. The future business secretary attended a youth conference in Cuba (a visit recorded by the British intelligence services) and sold the Morning Star outside Kilburn tube station.
John Reid, another future Labour cabinet minister, was also a member of the Soviet-aligned Communist Party of Great Britain. “He told us he was a Leninist and Stalinist,” Jim White, a fellow party member later recalled. “Although I was suspicious about his transition, we couldn’t tell if he was acting. We let him join.”
Others, dismayed by the Soviet Union's degeneration, were drawn to Trotskyism. Future chancellor Alistair Darling was a supporter of the International Marxist Group, the sect to which soixante huitard Tariq Ali belonged. "When I first met him [Darling] 35 years ago," George Galloway once recalled, "Darling was pressing Trotskyite tracts on bewildered railwaymen at Waverley Station in Edinburgh. He was a supporter of the International Marxist Group, whose publication was entitled the Black Dwarf. Later, in preparation for his current role he became the treasurer of what was always termed the rebel Lothian Regional Council."
Stephen Byers, the future transport secretary and Blairite-ultra, was a supporter of Militant, the entryist group later expelled from Labour by Neil Kinnock. Alan Milburn, who served as health secretary under Blair, was another youthful Trotskyist, running Marxist bookshop Days of Hope (known to locals as “Haze of Dope”).
Though all renounced their revolutionary politics, some detected remnants in New Labour's fondness for "command and control" (reminiscent of Leninist democratic centralism). And while Labour has never been a Marxist party, Marxism has long been a strain within it. Tony Benn, a rare example of a politician who moved leftwards with age, regularly cited the lessons of Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto. Asked to name the "most significant" influences on his thought in 2006, John McDonnell (who was then standing for the Labour leadership) replied: "The fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically."