Is Labour socialist? Has it ever been? And does Jeremy Corbyn truly represent a change in its political direction?
These are all important questions to address as Corbyn allies and his detractors battle for their party’s soul.
“Socialism” was the most looked-up word in the online dictionary last year, so individuals like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders who advocate socialist ideals are clearly playing on people’s minds. For the sake of ease, let’s take socialism essentially to mean collective or governmental ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods – although the definition has become slightly muddied in modern times. Read more about that here.
The Labour party has historically been known as a socialist party. Before its rose emblem (a common symbol of socialism and social democracy in political movements across Europe following World War II) was introduced in the Eighties, the party’s symbol was a red flag – a standard associated with communism and socialism since the French Revolution. The party and its leaders still sing The Red Flag at the end of its annual autumn party conference.
Plus, the party was born out of the trade union movement – heralded by the Manchester Guardian in 1918 as “the Birth of a Socialist Party” – the priorities of which often aligned with the tenets of socialism, regarding workers’ rights and redistribution of wealth. And many key trade union figures over the years have been supportive of the idea of an international workers’ movement.
The Labour party has also in the past implemented broadly socialist policies: the welfare state, National Health Service, nationalising key industries, progressive income tax policy, minimum wage, equality legislation.
All those things suggest it has in the past been a party with socialist values. But it has never advocated or implemented an economy-wide move towards common ownership of the means of production. And it has always taken the parliamentary route to reform rather than a revolutionary route to socialism.
Also, its electoral manifestos had not contained the word “socialism” since 1992, before Corbyn and his supporters started using the term a bit more (though he and his allies in Parliament call themselves “democratic socialists”).
Before 1995, Clause IV of the Labour constitution entrenched its socialist values:
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
But then Tony Blair mooted a replacement when he became leader, which was agreed upon at a special conference in Easter 1995 after a debate:
“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”
So now, the Labour party is less socialist. “Social democrats” are usually how more centrist left wing politicians in western democracies are described – and how most Labour MPs would identify. But Corbyn and his allies often use the description: “democratic socialist”.