Of the four political parties that existed in Britain at the dawn of the 20th century – the Irish Nationalists, the Liberals, the Tories and the nascent Labour Party – Labour alone is fit to govern. That indeed is new.
In this centenary year, no one should scorn references to the history and pre-history of the Labour Party. The reminders and lessons of struggle and sacrifice, triumph and disaster are essential – not for reasons of reverence or sentimentality, but because of identity and soul. Without that – without a sense of where we have come from, and without a sense of conviction – politics, including Labour politics, is little more than a hobby for bores or a refuge for the self-important.
The party is now sometimes called “new Labour”. That has evident symbolism and general appeal – but, clearly, the style of leadership under Tony Blair, the further modernisation of policies and of party structure, the adoption of new technological and psephological techniques, all signify changes that make traditionalists shudder.
Yet, though I don’t want to dismiss genuine concern or impatience, I would argue that, at its best times, Labour always has been “new”, or at least searching for dynamic change. We have always had our share of time-warped fundamentalists with lurid radical rhetoric and drab conservative instincts. But the idea of a homogeneous old Labour is something of a myth, and, like most myths, a product of ignorance. At the most constructive and convincing times in its past, the Labour Party has always embraced innovation, change, and newness.
Nothing has ever been more new than the Keir Hardie party that broke with Lib- Labbery a century ago. In the 1920s, newness was a party that had zoomed from birth to government in 24 years. Shining newness was the most glorious feature of Clem Attlee’s government of welfare state creation, full employment, reconstruction and decolonisation. In the 1950s, the reaffirmation of the mission of equality and the values of personal freedom, articulated best in Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, had coherent and confident newness. After 13 Tory years, new Labour in the 1960s meant Harold Wilson’s industrial reorganisation, regional development, technological initiatives, the Open University and socially enlightened law.
In the 1970s, newness was difficult for a minority government – but it still strove for advances in gender equality, legislated for industrial health and safety, and made major pension increases and reforms. In the 1980s, we certainly renewed and we rebuilt strength. But I can say with some feeling that neither was as fast or as fruitful as it needed to be.
In short, ever since the Labour Representation Committee was formed a hundred years ago, Labour’s ideas have always been in a state of progressive flux, of permanent evolution. If we are the party of newness today, it is in part because we always have been.
So, in this and other respects, newness in Labour is a constant. Retaining consistent values of liberty, equity, opportunity and security as rights for all provides Labour with its essential keel. Applying those values in ways that serve the present and provide for the future is what gives Labour propulsion.
From time to time events, decisions and statements will stimulate the view that the party leadership is diverging from that vital combination of essential ideals and necessary practicalities. That is inevitable. The patience of the party and the political fidelity of leaders will then be tested. That is unavoidable.
But people must ask themselves what grouping of talents and beliefs is more likely to deal constructively with the challenges ahead. Who will cope with the huge demands arising from demographic change? With the practical requirements of a service that is health-promoting as well as illness-treating, and universal in cover as well as free at time of need? With the defeat of systemic poverty in this country and, in alliance with others, globally? With the advance of gender equality? With the safe conduct of international affairs in an era when distance has almost disappeared? With the maintenance of economic stability and the simultaneous encouragement of employment and economic dynamism in an integrating and international market? With the mobilisation of scientific potential and protection against scientific excess or irresponsibility? With the respect of cultural diversity and liberty, and the deterrence and punishment of racism?
Can the answers to these and other basic obligations come from policies or mentalities that are narrow and insular, obsessed with the misted past and the very short-term future, dominated by the illusion that society is a marketplace? Of course not. The spirit necessary at the beginning of this century is outward-looking, audacious, generous and confident without being arrogant.
A strong sense of service and co- operation is essential, not for sentimental or populist purposes but as a practical requirement of both partnership and leadership in an increasingly interdependent continent and world. Unwillingness to accept the permanence of divisions in society and between world regions, and persistence in working against both is also essential.
As a product of its past and as an attribute of the present, I profoundly believe that, at the start of its second century, Labour has got what it takes.
The writer was leader of the Labour Party, 1983-92. This article is based on a speech to a recent Fabian Society conference, held to celebrate Labour’s centenary year