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