History shows why the Tories should be wary of branding Labour as 'socialist'

The party abandoned the practice in 1959 when some voters believed 'Labour' and 'Socialist' were different parties.

Painting Ed Miliband as an unreconstructed socialist will get the Tory party nowhere warned legendary ad man and former Conservative party chairman Maurice Saatchi in the Mail on Sunday the other day.

According to Saatchi's analysis, we "went off socialism" in the 1980s because "it didn’t produce any money…it didn’t create wealth for its citizens." The pendulum duly swung the other way, with people embracing Thatcherite popular capitalism. "But now we have gone off that too," he says, because it "seems to produce too much worship of the golden calf. So now we don’t know what we like."

An astute surfer of the political zeitgeist, Saatchi’s warning is prescient when you consider that more than four out of five voters feel energy suppliers "maximise profits at the expense of customers".

Undeterred by such warnings, the Conservative frontbench can barely contain its glee at Ed Miliband disinterring the term 'socialism' to define his politics. Earlier this year at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron even referred to Miliband as a "champagne socialist", to predictable guffawing from his own side.

But this is not the first time the Tories have tried this tactic. Back in the 1950s they were at it, demonising socialism as part of a strategy dreamed up by one of Saatchi’s predecessors as party chairman, Lord Woolton.

A brilliant fundraiser and party organiser, Woolton increased Conservative membership from 1.2 million in 1947 to 2.1 million by June 1948 and was an early advocate of political rebranding, favouring renaming the Conservatives as the Union Party. The idea didn’t catch on, but as the great Conservative historian Robert Blake notes in his seminal work The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher:

…the next best thing to changing the name of one’s own party favourably is to change that of one’s opponents unfavourably. He [Woolton] declared henceforth in speech and writing Conservatives should never use the word 'Labour' with its suggestions of honest British toil, but always substitute 'Socialist' with its alien, doctrinaire overtones.

However, this audacious strategy contained a central flaw, one which David Cameron might do well to remember. As Blake points out:

This practice was dropped in 1959 when some voters were found who believed 'Labour' and 'Socialist' to be different parties.

Conservative delegates next to a spoof Ed Miliband-themed pub at the party's conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Labour's purge: how it works, and what it means

The total number of people removed will be small - but the rancour will linger. 

Labour has just kicked off its first big wave of expulsions, purging many voters from the party’s leadership rolls. Twitter is ablaze with activists who believe they have been kicked out because they are supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. There are, I'm told, more expulsions to come - what's going on?  Is Labour purging its rolls of Corbyn supporters?

The short answer is “No”.

If that opener feels familiar, it should: I wrote it last year, when the last set of purges kicked off, and may end up using it again next year. Labour has stringent rules about expressing support for other candidates and membership of other parties, which account for the bulk of the expulsions. It also has a code of conduct on abusive language which is also thinning the rolls, with supporters of both candidates being kicked off. 

Although the party is in significantly better financial shape than last year, it still is running a skeleton staff and is recovering from an expensive contest (in this case, to keep Britain in the European Union). The compliance unit itself remains small, so once again people from across the party staff have been dragooned in.

The process this year is pretty much the same: Labour party headquarters doesn’t have any bespoke software to match its voters against a long list of candidates in local elections, compiled last year and added to the list of candidates that stood against Labour in the 2016 local and devolved elections, plus a large backlog of complaints from activists.

It’s that backlog that is behind many of the highest-profile and most controversial examples. Last year, in one complaint that was not upheld, a local member was reported to the Compliance Unit for their failure to attend their local party’s annual barbecue. The mood in Labour, in the country and at Westminster, is significantly more bitter this summer than last and the complaints more personal. Ronnie Draper, the general secretary of the Bfawu, the bakers’ union, one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters in the trade union movement, has been expelled, reported for tweets which included the use of the word “traitors” to refer to Labour opponents of Corbyn.  Jon Will Chambers, former bag carrier to Stella Creasy, and a vocal Corbyn critic on Twitter, has been kicked out for using a “Theresa May” twibbon to indicate his preference for May over Andrea Leadsom, in contravention of the party’s rules.

Both activities breach the letter of the party’s rules although you can (and people will) make good arguments against empowering other people to comb through the social media profiles of their opponents for reasons to dob them in.  (In both cases, I wouldn’t be shocked if both complaints were struck down on appeal)

I would be frankly astonished if Corbyn’s margin of victory – or defeat, as unlikely as that remains in my view – isn’t significantly bigger than the number of people who are barred from voting, which will include supporters of both candidates, as well as a number of duplicates (some people who paid £25 were in fact members before the freeze date, others are affliated trade unionists, and so on). 

What is unarguably more significant, as one party staffer reflected is, “the complaints are nastier now [than last year]”. More and more of the messages to compliance are firmly in what you might call “the barbecue category” – they are obviously groundless and based on personal animosity. That doesn’t feel like the basis of a party that is ready to unite at any level. Publicly and privately, most people are still talking down the chances of a split. It may prove impossible to avoid.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.