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Tony Blair isn't the only New Labour figure with a far-left past

The former PM's Trotskyism was shared by Alistair Darling and Alan Milburn, while Peter Mandelson and John Reid were communists. 

“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." 

Blair's youthful Trotskyism makes his professed bemusement at Jeremy Corbyn's rise all the more surprising ("I really mean it when I say I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now," he remarked). Just as the former PM was drawn to radicalism, so Labour's young (and old) members were inspired by Corbyn's unabashed socialism. Rather than lamenting the Islington MP's rise, Blair and his ideological successors would do better to learn from it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.