On the cover of the latest issue of the Labour Party’s glossy membership magazine, a wild-eyed stalker appears to have broken through the security cordon and stands looming behind Tony Blair. It turns out that it is Keir Hardie, the first leader of the party, who is breathing down his neck.
Welcome to what the magazine calls a celebration of “the greatest event in British politics”. Now, new Labour’s memory is usually so short you might be forgiven for thinking that all this was referring to a fateful meal at a certain Islington restaurant. But no. This is about something that happened a full 100 years ago, the founding of the Labour Party. Far out. That’s like decades and decades ago.
As for Hardie, there’s no hint of a threat. In new Labour iconography, the past comes back not to haunt but to pay homage. The symbolism, and the style, all flatteringly wise and sculpted cheekbones, is the sort of thing you see when you arrive in a thriving democracy, like Egypt for example, where giant murals of Mubarak emblazon the airport. Behind him, the Sphinx sits respectfully – offering up silent adulation to the glorious present.
What is not made clear, though, is what it is that actually connects the group of elaborately moustached men who met in the Memorial Hall in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1900 with the present Labour Party, pagers, three-point promotional pledge cards and all.
The old party had, from all accounts, a distinctive culture. The superficial signs of this were rituals like delegate conferences, card votes and the old rituals like referring to each other as “comrades”. Some of these remain, but party conferences long ago banished the dreaded c-word. Today, it is “members”, or the reassuringly unmilitary “colleagues”. Nowadays, “comrade” is only used by consenting adults in private or members who have the excuse of being over 70.
The early party culture was also, despite all the best efforts of the Fabians, who tried so hard to raise the tone if not the fashion sense of the party, resolutely rooted in the working class. Remember them?
It would be interesting, I thought, to check what they were up to, and so I went on to the Labour Party’s own website. A search here under the words “working class” elicited “0 Responses” and the forlorn suggestion, “Try another spelling”. Crass, perhaps? Well you were warned. In a Sunday Times interview in 1996, Tony Blair said that new Labour’s mission was to “allow more people to become middle class”. We just didn’t realise he meant all of them, and that quickly.
If, according to the Labour Party, the working class has mysteriously disappeared, then that will come as a surprise and not just to Peter Kilfoyle. In their wonderful book A Class Act, Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard argue convincingly that although what we used to think of as the working class has declined, the notion of class itself has not. They point out that the number of people who believe there is a class struggle going on in Britain has been steadily rising since the 1950s. It stands now at 87 per cent. In a December 1999 Guardian/ICM poll, the number of people describing themselves as working class is 41 per cent. Maybe they are all struggling to become middle class.
What’s not in doubt is that the obvious signs of working-class culture within the Labour Party are fading fast. There is still the link with the trade unions, which originally founded it. But now this feels increasingly like a sham marriage. It’s just too much bother to get divorced. In the meantime, the unions supply money, the fitful use of the block vote when the leadership is in trouble, and the chance for young, carefully chosen prospective candidates to mix with the sort of people they would only otherwise meet when overseeing the building of their new loft extensions.
Alongside the unions 100 years ago, there used to be a panoply of other organisations, where, if anywhere, the soul of old Labour could be located. Many of its pioneers had earned their spurs in organisations like the socialist Sunday schools, and the temperance clubs. These gave way, as union memberships grew and dues were invested in bricks and mortar, to real places, the working men’s clubs. In 1900, these were not the clubs we now associate with a night in with Bernard Manning. They were alternatives to the pub. Serious, sober places committed to the socialist salvation of the working class, who, it was believed, were being corrupted and degraded by prostitution and drunkenness.
In communities with little or no access to education, political or otherwise, these places functioned as libraries, and schools. It was also here where the brass bands and choirs blossomed. Growing up in Ayrshire in Scotland, I remember meeting one 80 year old who left school at 13 to work in the mines whose love of books was first sparked by the local club. He could still recite Pope and Byron at length, and interspersed talk of the Red Clydesiders with observations about local flora and fauna. “Aye, that was the call of a corncrake” isn’t the sort of statement you hear every day.
They were, however, in many ways culturally conservative places. In 1900, they were Stalinist-socialist-realist before their time. From the architecture, which was never Bauhaus or Rennie Mackintosh, to the educational content, they were about creating the 20th-century proletarian equivalent of the well-rounded Victorian gentleman. Frivolous they were not.
Working-class clubs have not all disappeared. Wherever there has been a union to subsidise them, they limp on. But their decline across the country has been precipitate, mirroring the economic implosion of miners’ villages and steel towns. Ironically, Labour itself started this demise by increasing the standard of living. After the second world war, in an age of universal literacy, the educational role of the working men’s clubs was unnecessary. The temperance movement had fought a losing battle and the clubs all became bars with a community centre and proud history tacked on. Then, as incomes soared in the 1960s, teenagers had, for the first time, money of their own and could exercise the choice not to hang out with their grannies.
The Cobden Club in west London is a moral tale all its own. Downstairs, an ageing clientele enjoys the traditional fare of the working men’s club: pool tables, darts, movie showings, and a pub. But despite the riotous good humour of its manager, Johnnie Squires, an air of impending doom hangs over the place. “The problem is simple: working men’s clubs were for workers and they are few and far of them left in the world,” he says.
They sold the freehold to the floors upstairs long ago, first to a sushi bar, and then four years ago to what became Cobden Club plc – listed on the stock market, no less. Now, there are two separate entrances to two different worlds.
Upstairs, it’s all designer velvet lovingly restored. A gilt palace, including the once educational library, and a stage for elitist young Londoners. Membership is strictly controlled. You have to be sponsored now by two other members, or someone on the committee, which I must say reeks a little of the union world of yore. It’s £260 by the way, which seems a lot just to be able to rub shoulders with Kate Moss, and Leonardo di Caprio, neither of whom have, as far as I know, as good a collection of eccentric jokes as Johnnie downstairs.
The clubs may be on the way out, but what of their old serious culture? Early Labour was deeply suspicious of money and outward show, and occasionally you see glimpses of that today. When Ramsay MacDonald, the party’s first prime minister, became so enamoured of high society that he stood with Lady Londonderry as she greeted guests to her grand soirees, the party was outraged.
Today, it takes something like Peter Mandelson and his ergonomic Eames chairs, a snip at £3,000, to provoke the party’s Presbyterianism. Have you noticed, by the way, how his much-publicised friendship with Elisabeth Murdoch seems to have been put on ice? Ahhh, Belfast is not the social whirl it used to be. As Lady Londonderry was doubtless wont to remark.
As for corporate wealth, the party seems to have taken to that with all the zeal of the convert. I remember the Labour Party conference of 1987 (who could forget it?). That was the year British Airways, privatised and stinkily rich, decided to buy a promotional stand. The platform stood alone, looking sad and glitzy like a drag queen on a building site, and its personnel probably had to undergo therapy to recover from the abuse visited upon them by various species of militant.
Ten years later, you needed a map, sponsored of course, to find your way through the welter of company stands and marketing events into the conference hall. Some delegates never made it. They wandered from the heart-rate monitors to the personal finance plans, from the interactive graphics packages to the mobile telephones. Until finally, exhausted, they were seduced by the allure of 16 different types of fairtrade coffee.
In the past, the biggest night of the Labour Party conference was Burns Night, where railwaymen and steel-fitters dressed in kilts, sung heart-rending tributes to a boozy philanderer. Now neatly pressed suits rub up against each other, creating bolts of static electricity, at the Glaxo-Wellcome cheese and wine party Well, who said change was all for the better?
The contempt for money may have gone, but there are still some remnants of the old culture. Unions had, at various times, been proscribed organisations. As a result, they had been forced to become secretive and ruthlessly disciplined. This still expresses itself in the party today, in the rituals and love of hierarchy that characterise the party’s nit-picking bureaucracy and in its fear of perceived enemies, be they Trots or newt-lovers. Keir Hardie would probably not have thought Tony Blair a control freak.
Then there is the arrogance. The old working men’s clubs were founded by people who believed that the working class was morally better, that it was in effect the true aristocracy of Britain. Unfortunately, that pride in class easily elided into insufferable arrogance about the workers’ own party.
This sort of arrogance, the party political equivalent of Little Englandism, has had one singular lasting effect on today’s Labour culture. The party behaves as if its own little claustrophobic and superior universe is everything.
The problem now is that this world, self-sufficient and exclusive, more and more feels like the Cobden Club – upstairs not downstairs; the plc, not workers of the world unite. Maybe that’s what old Keir Hardie is trying to mutter into Tony’s ear.
Malcolm Clark is producing a social history of Britain for ITV