A poisoned legacy from which Labour has never quite recovered
Judging only by its electoral performance, the Communist Party of Great Britain was a near-total failure in the 20th century.
3 CommentsPeter Oborne 4 November 2009
Judging only by its electoral performance, the Communist Party of Great Britain was a near-total failure in the 20th century. It only secured a tiny number of MPs at Westminster, while the party membership peaked at just over 60,000 at the height of Soviet popularity during the second world war. But this public lack of success was misleading. The communists exercised considerable secret influence in universities, publishing houses, journalism and even the civil service for decades after 1945.
Its greatest power, however, lay inside the Labour party and the trade unions. It was perhaps especially strong in the National Union of Mineworkers and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. This strength survived long after the catastrophic Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. We know that the Transport and General Workers Union leader Jack Jones — who received effusive praise from prime minister Gordon Brown when he died in April this year — was a paid agent for the USSR, and in receipt of cash handouts from his Soviet handler Oleg Gordievsky as late as the 1980s.
The merit of Anatoly Chernyaev’s diaries is that they show just how cheerful and trusting was the relationship between Labour politicians and trade union officials and Soviet Communists. Reports of the Labour party General Secretary Ron Hayward confiding in the Soviets his plans to capture the party machinery by developing a cadre of young activists may sound quaint today. Not so in 1974, when the Cold War was at its height. There was a whiff of social disintegration in the air and the nuclear-armed USSR posed an existential threat.
These diaries indicate that, by the 1970s, an alternative government was in place, handpicked by Moscow to take over the apparatus of the British state once the Cold War was lost. There would be a Soviet-style power split: real power would rest in the chairmanship and the bureaucracy, with the politicians simply the front men. Some of the Labour men the Soviets were grooming were paid agents, others fellow travellers. Yet even front-rank politicians were pathetically anxious to reach some kind of understanding with the Soviet regime.
Even today we still do not possess anything like a clear picture of how far this penetration stretched. The lure of Moscow is recent. It remains quite staggering how many aspirant Labour politicians were either members of the communist party or, like the Justice Secretary Jack Straw, influenced by the CP at a time when it was controlled by Moscow. The former defence secretary John Reid, for example, was a CP member well into the 1970s, while Peter Mandelson was an influential Young Communist.
Indeed the New Labour government which has governed Britain since 1997 cannot be understood unless these communist influences are taken into account. Many of New Labour’s characteristics — its deep suspicion of outsiders, its structural hostility to democratic debate, its secrecy, its faith in bureaucracy, embedded preference for striking deals away from the public eye, its ruthless reliance on a small group of trusted activists — result from the early CP training of Reid, Mandelson and others.
So today’s revelations in the Spectator are not a recondite exercise in ancient history. They have a great to tell us about our very recent past and how Britain is still governed. Yet Soviet infiltration of the Labour movement remains a neuralgic subject on the left. One of Jack Jones’s brightest protégés was Gordon Brown. And when I approached Downing Street to ask the prime minister whether he would withdraw his outspoken praise for Jones in the light of the recently disclosed fact that he was a KGB asset and long-term traitor, the Prime Minister dithered and dawdled. At length Downing Street came back with a robust ‘no comment’.