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The distinction first became evident when left-wingers such as Neil Kinnock abstained from voting for Tony Benn in the election for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981. The term came to be used in contrast to hard left, who were more explicitly socialist in rhetoric, remaining associated with Benn.
The parliamentary group which came to be associated with the soft left was the Tribune group. The Tribune group was formed around the newspaper of the same name and had represented the party left as a whole until Benn's allies formed the Socialist Campaign Group. The Labour Co-ordinating Committee grew to become the soft left's main factional organisation in the 1980s, despite having begun its life as a Bennite or "hard left" body.
Figures identified with the soft left in the 1980s included David Blunkett, Robin Cook, Bryan Gould and Clare Short. The 1980s soft left did begin to diverge over time; for example, some figures (such as Blunkett) became loyalists to Tony Blair by the end of the 1990s. However, activist figures such as the National Executive Committee member Ann Black and a range of MPs have continued to work as part of the 'broad left'.
Contemporary soft left
The term was occasionally used during Labour's period in government from 1997 to 2010 to describe Labour politicians who were positioned to the left of New Labour, but to the right of the Socialist Campaign Group.
In the 2010s, the term soft left has been used to describe politicians such as Ed Miliband or Lisa Nandy, who were seen as ideologically on the left wing of the Labour Party, but perceived to be more willing to make political compromises than their hard left counterparts in Labour. The phrase has been used to describe political figures such as Sadiq Khan.
In 2015, Neal Lawson, the chair of the think tank Compass, identified the organisation as a successor to the soft left. Compass disaffiliated from Labour in 2011 in order to open up their membership to people belonging to other political parties. The activist group Open Labour was launched in 2015 with the aim of developing a new forum for the soft left political tradition within the party, which it hopes to recast as the "Open Left". In the 2017 general election, several Open Labour activists were elected to Parliament including Open Labour Treasurer Alex Sobel, Emma Hardy and Rosie Duffield.
Labour politicians on the soft left
The following Labour politicians are often considered on the soft left of the party, but may not identify themselves as such:
- Hilary Benn
- Andy Burnham
- Rosie Duffield
- Anneliese Dodds
- Angela Eagle
- Barry Gardiner
- Kate Green
- Nia Griffith
- Andrew Gwynne
- Emma Hardy
- Louise Haigh
- John Healey
- Sadiq Khan
- Anna McMorrin
- Ed Miliband
- Lisa Nandy
- Jess Philips
- Lucy Powell
- Angela Rayner
- Owen Smith
- Alex Sobel
- Keir Starmer
- Graham Stringer
- Paul Sweeney
- Emily Thornberry
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