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What is Labour for?

Two new books show that a century after it formed its first government, the party is once again wrestling with its purpose and identity.

By Andrew Marr

For Labour, the year ahead is a mental marathon of queasy apprehension – there will be months of bitten fingernails and hollow stomachs, at sudden political surprises and opinion polling lurches.

Jon Cruddas, the Dagenham Labour MP and political thinker, describes its “immense” challenge in A Century of Labour: “Just a 3 per cent swing would cost the Conservatives their majority at the next election. Yet in 2019, Labour returned its lowest total of MPs since 1935. The party therefore requires something in the order of a 12 per cent swing to secure an overall majority.” That is bigger than Clement Attlee in 1945. It’s bigger than Tony Blair in 1997.

For many undecided voters, beyond the to and fro of policy argument, and as important as the memory of the past 14 years of Tory rule, is an almost ridiculously stark question: what is Labour?

[See also: To turn or not to turn?]

As Cruddas explains, in the century since the party first came briefly to power in 1924, under different leaders and in different circumstances, it has been haunted by the “death question”. What is the Labour Party fundamentally for? And – since it’s a hard question to answer clearly – why should it survive?

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His mental wrestle with the death question has produced a fascinating and unusual book. It’s a history of something Labour’s critics, and some of its friends, are not sure exists – Labour ideology. It is the biography of a wraith.

Cruddas argues that instead of seeing Labourism through a traditional left-right fault line, we should think about three rival ideas of justice: first, there is welfare, or utilitarian justice, concentrated around material inequality and redistribution; second, the long tradition of justice as liberty, running from the Magna Carta to the 1998 Human Rights Act; and finally there is ethical justice, or a concern for human flourishing and virtue, particularly strong in the William Morris and John Ruskin era, and these days associated with the Blue Labour group.

They can be complementary, of course. As Cruddas, an early left-ish adviser to the Blair leadership, writes: “At its best New Labour was an extraordinarily rich, elegant composite of the three philosophical traditions.”

But since he is associated with the “virtue” view of justice and writes from that perspective, it is worth concentrating on. Cruddas argues that it “offers a politics of the individual rooted in the social goods that give meaning to people’s lives: home, family, friendships, good work, locality and communities of belonging”.

This is a generous politics, therefore, and particularly applicable now that the planet-ravaging economics of competitive consumerist accumulation is running out of road (even in an electric vehicle). Among contemporary Labour politicians, it is most obviously represented by Lisa Nandy, the shadow international development minister.

Cruddas allows a fresh reading of Labour history in which disparate individuals, from the New Liberals of the 1880s, through Keir Hardie, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair find themselves – perhaps to their surprise – standing in similar territory.

But the great flaw of ethical or virtue politics is its inability to clamber down from rhetoric to policy. When Blair called in 1994 for “a new spirit in the nation based on working together, unity, solidarity, partnership”, which he called “the patriotism of the future”, it was hard not to feel moved. It was also hard to see the programme that would give it form. Sure Start was not a bad one – but it derives as much from the other views of justice.

In the end, the project is for a better people as much as a better government. In this highly secular, materialistic and harried age, would voters be prepared to listen to politicians talk about virtue?

Meanwhile, no Labour leader has been defined in the public view by their philosophy but rather by the economic and political forces of the age, which quickly batter any ideological coherence out of shape. Attlee was eventually defined less by the secularised Christianity of his political upbringing than by the big-state, disciplined patriotism of global war. Harold Wilson saw himself as a socially conservative and technocratic leader but was defined by a social revolution over which he had little control, and economic crises that rudely elbowed aside the “technological utopianism” he proclaimed, ending in the victory of the Treasury in 1966.

Blair, who “consciously sought to embrace early ethical and liberal socialist traditions to supplant later statist ones” was bashed out of shape by the globalised boom-economics of his era and the choices he made in response to the dominance of the US. The Scottish moralist Brown inherited a situation in which rebuilding the public realm was funded by a pumped-up but fragile and under-regulated banking system that, when it collapsed, eventually destroyed his government too.

Leaders who never made it into power, from George Lansbury through to Hugh Gaitskell, Kinnock, John Smith, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, all had their philosophical positions and, hit by events, struggled to maintain them even in opposition. It’s always more about the news than the prayer book. So, returning to where we started, where does this leave Keir Starmer in 2024?

[See also: How the centre right was lost]

General criticisms of Labour’s lack of creed could be applied equally to the Conservatives at any time: Cruddas rightly praises Labour for being “a remarkably resilient and politically agile institution” in ways that kept the death threat at bay.

Starmer is nothing like Blair because his inheritance is nothing like Blair’s. This matters far more than their different attitudes to, say, Christian socialism. Blair inherited a strong economy in a confident globalised world, and a country keen for liberal social reform. Blair embraced the radical changes Margaret Thatcher had made and sought to go further.

Starmer, who has recently pivoted from his earlier views on pluralism, Europe and nationalisation, may inherit a shattered economy, a much more dangerous global outlook, and a mood of deep national pessimism. This demands an emphasis on security and a restored, stronger state. Cruddas sees Starmer as crafting “a significant Wilsonian re-evaluation of Labour’s purpose with the rehabilitation of an active state-led growth agenda and return to questions of economic stakeholding”. This is entirely right.

I’m not saying that belief or temperament plays no part. That would be crazy. Blair came with an innate, bouncy optimism and openness that reflected the times. Starmer, a naturally frugal public servant and state prosecutor, has an innate social conservatism and mild authoritarian streak that reflects these times. But returning to the awesome challenge of the year ahead, he still needs to explain his politics better. The Tory question, no doubt with a menacing undertone, will be: “Who is Keir Starmer?”

However he answers that question, he will find himself shaped by the big forces of economics and world power relations. In even tougher circumstances, that was also the story of the very first Labour government of 1924, a minority one dependent on grudging Liberal support, swiftly brought down by a communist scare fomented by the Daily Mail – and the subject of a meticulously researched collective biography by David Torrance. His book The Wild Men is namedafter a letter to the Times by a Tory MP, who described Labour supporters as “Communists, the wild men, the work-shy, the ignorant and the illiterate”.

Ramsay MacDonald’s government was anything but wild – it was a collection of working-class men, some of them from the poorest and most broken homes imaginable, along with a few intellectuals and well-off middle-class supporters, who survived in power from January until November. They seem to have spent a lot of their time thinking about clothing: knee-length breeches for audiences with George V or not? Old toppers, soft hats or flat caps?

They made modest reforms, probably too modest – one was the introduction of taxis into Hyde Park. They improved relations with post-revolutionary Russia and, largely thanks to MacDonald himself, helped settle post-First World War European rivalries at the London Conference. Under the Clydesider John Wheatley, they began a substantial housebuilding programme, as well as initiating the National Grid and building new roads.

MacDonald himself gets the kind of sympathetic treatment he too rarely receives – bereaved, sorrowing, intensely hard-working and able to win the support of an intensely suspicious monarch, so changing the history of both the monarchy and democratic Labour politics.

Brought down by MacDonald’s own mishandling of the prosecution of a communist journalist – for this Labour leader was also inept and devious at times – and electorally crushed after a forged letter from the Comintern leader Grigory Zinoviev, their true achievement was captured later by Attlee: “The British elector is very sceptical of anything which he has not seen. The mere formation of a Labour Government and its existence for nine months registered a vital change in the political situation. Henceforth Labour was the alternative Government.”

It still is. And sometimes, it is more than that. As we peer into 2024, these are two very useful guides.

A Century of Labour
Jon Cruddas
Polity, 288pp, £25

The Wild Men
David Torrance
Bloomsbury Continuum, 336pp, £20

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

[See also: New books for 2024]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously

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