Eternal power

The Struggle for Labour's Soul: understanding Labour's political thought since 1945

Edited by Raym

Not the least of new Labour's achievements has been to rewrite the party's history. Gone is the rich, infuriating narrative that shaped - and often misshaped - the party's policies. In the revised version, the achievements of the postwar government were followed by a long period in the doldrums, when the antics of the left made it impossible for Labour to hold on to power. Then, following some preliminary dusting by Neil Kinnock, along came Tony Blair's new broom, bringing with it the prospect of eternal power.

As with all caricatures, this one has an element of truth. This eclectic collection of essays is worth buying for just one contribution: Stuart Holland's defence of the alternative economic strategy of the 1980s. Deconstructing this farrago of pseudo-economic mumbo-jumbo should be compulsory for all socialists. Holland's claim that much of Europe has adopted his remedies is indeed conclusive - as one glance at the Continent's recent economic performance relative to Britain's shows.

Most people think the battle for Labour's soul has been between left and right. Yet this has never been as important as it seemed. If the left triumphed, as it briefly did in the 1980s, it set in motion a self- limiting device whereby the party became unelectable. The left was partly to blame for the easy ride Labour gave Margaret Thatcher, but its thinking had virtually no effect on the way Britain was governed.

Several contributors to this collection rightly acknowledge that many Labour members (both in and outside parliament) have belonged neither to the right nor to the left of the party, but have fallen into a third category - the centre. Historically, the centre's allegiances have been crucial to the party's fortunes. Yet it has usually been the least well-defined of the three branches - an inevitable result, perhaps, of having Harold Wilson as its most articulate exponent.

Anthony Crosland figures prominently in almost every essay in The Struggle for Labour's Soul. Crosland's great achievement was to believe in distinctive Labour ends, while rejecting the means proposed by the left. In particular, he proposed that equality should be the party's overriding objective. But equality, for him, did not simply mean new Labour's anaemic equality of opportunity; it also meant greater equality of outcomes.

Today, Crosland's thinking still has a number of attractions. It offers the party a sense of purpose without making it unelectable. It combines vision with practicality. It plays to the things that Labour supporters instinctively favour: high levels of public expenditure; redistribution through both spending and taxing; comprehensive education; and a universal welfare state. Moreover, in recent years, some of the objections that in the mid-1970s seemed to have done for Croslandism have receded. It has proved possible for a capitalist economy to achieve sustained non-inflationary growth (although this required a diminution of trade-union power); and, under the chancellorship of Gordon Brown, public expenditure has been increased without halting economic progress.

Some advocates of Croslandism would go further. Roy Hattersley appears to believe that the work of the great revisionist requires no further revision. But this is to misunderstand the prophet's message. Crosland always insisted that democratic socialism had to evolve. He himself fretted at the end of his life over who would revise The Future of Socialism. With respect, I do not think that Hattersley's book Choose Freedom was what he had in mind.

Since Crosland, the world has changed enormously. The rise of globalisation makes Plant doubtful that equality is still a practical goal for socialists. But in many countries, globalisation has been compatible with greater equality; where it hasn't, this is largely because greater equality has not been pursued seriously. Even more important has been the decline of the working class, both numerically and ideologically. This has undermined the viability of equality as a political slogan.

The new Crosland, when he or she emerges, will have to grapple seriously with these issues, and many others. The potential reward, however, is a new philosophy for Labour capable of turning into reality Blair's dream of eternal power.

David Lipsey was political adviser to Anthony Crosland from 1972-77

Next Article