Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Labour
22 September 2021updated 23 Sep 2021 9:59am

The key to success for Labour is to move with the times

In a changed world, the party is unsure quite what – or who – it stands for.

By Philip Collins

It is an important, under-appreciated point that, over the course of its century in existence, the Labour Party gradually abandoned its beliefs. If this were the Conservative Party we might say that it adapted as the world changed. But Labour is a dogmatic party and the process of change is more painful. The Conservatives have no tradition of betrayal because there is no scripture in the first place. In the Labour Party the most common way to damn any attempt to change course is to say that it is tantamount to treachery. Labour started life committed to the tenets of economic socialism and is now committed to nothing of the sort.

Of course, strong residues remain. The principle of equality, however defined, still exerts a powerful pull in the Labour Party. This is the reason revisionists of the Crosland generation – most prominently, the former deputy leader of the party Roy Hattersley – were so unenthusiastic about the Blair victories that might have been considered the culmination of the project they had themselves initiated. The problem was that Tony Blair was not, by any definition, much of an egalitarian. The Croslandites had conducted such a bitter fight against Labour’s commitment to nationalisation that they could not countenance jettisoning equality too.

This is why Labour’s literature is littered with under-defined appeals to equality. It’s the legacy issue, a link to the ancestral past. But other remnants linger, and this week common ownership returned. On Newsnight on 13 September the party’s former leader Ed Miliband looked about to start a fight in an empty studio. In a strangely fiery display, he reminded the audience that, in the absence of any formal renunciation, Labour retains a commitment to take the major utilities into public ownership.

It sounds a rather expensive policy for the new, fiscally cautious management team of Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves. However, the nominal commitment remains and, as the energy market fails and the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, is forced to tell parliament that he hopes to be able to keep the lights on, reneging on the promise would be greeted in the Labour Party as the latest act of treachery.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s proposed rule changes are a power grab by the Parliamentary Labour Party]

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

I have no particular ideological opposition to public ownership. But this ought to be an empirical rather than a moral question. Which regime is more likely to work? Is it really a good idea to put Kwarteng in charge of the whole thing? The market, clearly, does not work, but then the way to clear the market is to remove the price cap. And even Kwarteng can’t stand the politics of doing that.

Content from our partners
Why ports are the gateway to growth
We are living longer than our predecessors – policy must catch up
Getting Britain building

The reason Ed Miliband is wrong is that politics is unsymmetrical and unfair. When the Business Secretary discusses an intervention in the energy market it is a little surprising. It sounds like an exception to a rule that is being breached because the circumstances are indeed exceptional. When Labour says the same thing it sounds like the arrival of the ideological cavalry. The same thing happened with the price cap, which sounded like the essence of Labour when Ed Miliband proposed it and a one-off aberration when Theresa May did. This is not about whether it is right or wrong; it is about the political signal that is emitted. Kwarteng comes across as acting briefly out of character for reasons of temporary pragmatism. The Labour Party sounds like its moment has finally arrived.

Sadly, it probably hasn’t. The British public wants energy to come through the pipes but they have no great view on how  it gets there. The great bible of Labour failure is Edmund Dell’s A Strange, Eventful History, which argues that democratic socialism is a contradiction in terms.  There was never any democratic consent for socialism, writes Dell. The first word always cancelled the second.

The upshot is that, after a century in which first socialism, then nationalisation and then equality ceased to provide the party with its intellectual ballast, Labour is left unsure quite what it stands for.

[See also: What Liz Truss learned from Jeremy Corbyn]

Or, indeed, who. Labour was an alliance of middle-class intellectuals and working-class trade unionists. Its stated imperative was to represent the interests of the newly enfranchised industrial workers. Like the apparition of its intellectual prospectus, this class has slowly evolved and disappeared. As early as 1959 Mark Abrams and Richard Rose were writing a pamphlet called Must Labour Lose?, predicated on the changing sociology of the nation. That process culminated in 2019 in the first general election in which the link between social class and political affiliation broke.

Labour therefore must change into something different, less doctrinally fixed, more supple across social groups. It needs new positions on welfare and immigration, as well as a line on public spending that will withstand scrutiny. The really odd thing about the Corbyn experiment was how it was conducted as if class politics of the old vintage still existed. There was a small surge in 2017 precisely because Labour had not yet taken sides definitively on Brexit. When it did, in 2019, and when people had seen more of the party’s leadership, the result was calamity. There is no way back in an appeal to an old constituency.

It may be that Labour’s history is no guide to its future and, for a sentimental party, that might prove a tough lesson.  The British are, as Keir Hardie once said,  “a practical people not given to blowing bubbles”. As Labour’s second Keir prepares for a conference that will define his time as leader of the opposition, the task before him is to see if he can blow Labour out of its own bubble.

Topics in this article:

This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play