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22 January 2024

Labour and the curse of history

Keir Starmer must soon answer the question that has always plagued the party: what is Labour for?

By Jon Cruddas

Britain’s first Labour government took office a century ago, on 22 January 1924. The night before, Labour’s first prime minister Ramsay MacDonald privately acknowledged the impending challenge, writing “the load will be heavy and I am so much alone”. Labour’s deputy leader JR Clynes recalled MacDonald saying “God knows full well that none of us wants office now. None of us wants to face this mess. But somebody has got to do it.” Labour’s present leadership might harbour similar concerns.

Polling day on 6 December 1923 had seen a significant swing against the Conservatives although it was unclear who had won. The Tories lost nearly 100 seats yet remained the largest party, with the opposition split between Labour (191 seats) and the Liberals (158). On 12 December, over dinner at 41 Grosvenor Road in London, the home of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Labour’s “big five” – MacDonald, Philip Snowden, Arthur Henderson, Clynes and Jimmy Thomas – agreed to accept the challenge of government. Three weeks later, the Commons passed a motion of no confidence in Stanley Baldwin’s government. That evening at Labour’s packed Albert Hall Victory Rally, MacDonald announced that if invited the party would accept office, although he warned it would mean taking over a “bankrupt estate”.

The first Labour government lasted from January to November 1924. The desire for respectability and to demonstrate a capacity for governance preoccupied MacDonald as the Conservative papers obsessed over the domestic Bolshevik threat. Apart from John Wheatley’s Housing Act there were no pioneering reforms, in part due to the government’s minority status and reliance on the Liberals, but also because of a desire to appear moderate. Party policies such as the nationalisation of the mines, railways and electricity, the “capital levy” wealth tax and public works programmes were downplayed or ignored altogether.

Since the party’s formation in 1900, only three of the party’s 19 permanent leaders, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, have won a parliamentary majority at a general election. Despite introducing a welfare state, the National Health Service, as well as decades of pioneering equalities legislation, excluding wartime coalitions, Labour has held power for just 33 years.

In 2024, after the pandemic and years of Conservative-enforced economic austerity, a historic dilemma has reappeared, one that has shadowed Labour since its founding, between offering moderation and promising change; perceived electability and radicalism. The party is confronted by intense hostility, especially among the media. At its commanding heights, this creates an understandable psychology of appeasement to navigate the few viable routes to office. This dilutes any electoral mandate to radically change the country in office. Offering efficient management and reassurance will fail to satisfy either the membership or the country. It raises the obvious question – what is Labour for?

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Beyond the overriding question – what is Labour for? – two other questions have overshadowed its history. The first is the origin question. Was the rise of a party of labour inevitable given the evolving nature of industrial capitalism? Was a party of the organised working class always going to rise and dislodge the Liberal Party in the first quarter of the last century? The second is the death question. Is it just painting over the cracks and managing its decline? Is it on the wrong side of history? Is the party over?

Labour’s early intellectual influences – including social Darwinism and the Enlightenment, forms of utopianism, various religious strands, especially dissenting traditions, and Marxism – built a self-confident party, certain of its historic role in delivering socialism.  These forces helped instil assumptions of social and scientific progress and, in the early leadership, a belief in what was termed the “inevitability of gradualism”.

This optimistic vision surrounding Labour became more fatalistic following the defeat of the Attlee government in 1951. Pessimism reigned in much of the party during the 1950s while parts of the New Left were downcast about Labour’s prospects as representative of an organised working class. Such thinking was expressed most powerfully by the historian Eric Hobsbawm when he questioned the forward march of Labour, and argued that the party must adapt or die. This also underpinned the arguments of “modernisers” in the 1980s, and later the diagnosis supplied by New Labour. Such pessimism has regularly inspired proposals to change the party name, constitution or policy priorities, or all three at once. Both the origin and death question understand Labour’s role – or purpose – with recourse to evolving economic, social and class forces, and inserts an arc to Labour’s history; of an inevitable rise and fall.

But this question of purpose can be approached differently. From the outset there was little agreement about what Labour was for. In the 1890s, the idea of “socialist unity” and with it, in the words of the Independent Labour Party leader John Bruce Glasier, the “doctrinaire, Calvinistic, and sectarian” politics of the left, was rejected by Keir Hardie in favour of a broad-based alliance to promote labour causes. Throughout Labour’s story questions of purpose remained unresolved despite attempts by factional combatants to insert a formal ideology into party history. From its creation, the Labour Representation Committee was a coalition of different organisations and philosophies. Labour has remained a party without a formal ideology, identity or creed.

Yet despite this, Labour is constrained by history, by sentimental attachment and an idealised sense of the past. One prone to distortion, misrepresentation and the promotion of false beliefs about what the party is for. This has regularly led to disunity and talk of betrayal regarding an essential purpose, such as the events leading to the collapse of the second minority Labour administration and the formation of a National Government in 1931, disputes over union regulation, or the actions of the New Labour government after 1997.

An alternative take on Labour’s history and purpose is to examine how different political philosophies regarding the organisation of society – theories of justice – have shaped Labour and informed its successes and failures. These operate behind the scenes of the day-to-day political drama. Three such theories demarcate Labour’s history. The first is concerned with maximising human welfare and is focused on distributional justice, of who gets what; the allocation of economic resources and material equality. This economistic tradition has generally dominated Labour history across both its left and right flanks. The second is concerned with maximising human freedom and often evokes the Diggers, Levellers and Chartists when making the case for modern democratic and constitutional renewal. Such thinking informed postwar concerns for human rights following the experience of fascism and genocide, as well as equalities legislation enacted by successive Labour governments from the 1960s to 2010.

The third approach, often termed ethical socialism, seeks to nurture the human virtues that might characterise a just society and the policy and institutional arrangements that enable citizens to live a good life and flourish. This tradition has informed debates on working class self-improvement, civic renewal and citizenship. In economic terms its influence can be detected in the tradition of guild socialism, debates around workers’ control, economic democracy and stake-holding. All three are valuable and indispensable parts of the Labour tradition.

In this way, Labour’s tumultuous history can be understood less in terms of an inevitable rise and fall but rather by its ability to unite and draw inspiration from three visions of socialist justice. Labour can successfully own a story of national renewal; one equipped with moral purpose that can rebuild civic virtue, enhance human rights and advance equality. The party has prospered when the three traditions combine, notably under the Attlee government between 1945 and 1951, and the first term of the Blair government.

Yet this requires a self-confident leadership committed to political pluralism and internal reconciliation. Far too often, one approach has dominated to the exclusion of others – the tradition of distributional justice. A focus on material welfare is fundamental to Labour but insufficient. It can dominate at the expense of wider questions of human well-being and freedom, and can truncate Labour – the party can appear cold and transactional, too utilitarian.

Keir Starmer is a unique Labour leader. Entering politics late he has risen to the top quickly. Unlike other leaders, there is little in the way of an ideological paper trail and he appears detached from the party factions. He has used this to great effect. He is not trapped by history, factional association, or tradition, as reflected in the distance travelled since he took over. This also embeds an elusive quality to his leadership in terms of his approach to socialist justice. Although this might be changing.

Though under-reported, in recent months Labour has alighted on a political and intellectual strategy that separates it from the legacy of both Jeremy Corbyn and New Labour. It echoes Harold Wilson in its diagnosis of the UK’s comparative economic performance and productivity shortfalls, and in its emphasis on an industrial strategy and a new deal for working people. If elected, a focus on economic growth would likely be the organising principle of the administration. Rather than trying to draw from and reconcile Labour’s traditions of justice, Starmer appears intent on a specific economic strategy to deliver change.

Labour’s tendency towards distributional justice has often rested uneasily with its ability to successfully engineer growth. Consequently, the politics of austerity has bedevilled the history of the party. The “Geddes Axe” to reduce public expenditure constrained the 1924 administration. The proposals of the 1931 May committee, established to advise ways to curb state spending in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, detonated the second Labour government and threatened the very existence of the party. The costs of the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 placed strains on public finances and led to the introduction of charges for medical prescriptions which triggered resignations from Attlee’s cabinet.

Just like Wilson, Starmer’s plan is bold. Yet by the summer of 1966 the National Plan had effectively been abandoned, along with its ambitious growth strategy, and replaced with strict spending controls and wage and price freezes. Despite delivering average annual growth rates of 2.2 per cent. Wilson’s strategy was considered a failure.

A new Labour government will have a wretched inheritance. It will be interesting to see if, over the next few months, Starmer and his team embrace other intellectual traditions within Labour history and build a wider story of freedom and democratic renewal, of human flourishing and what constitutes a good society. The first Wilson government is best remembered not for its growth strategy but for its approach to social liberty. The most significant feature of Blair’s first term was constitutional renewal. An over-reliance on questions of growth and distributional justice might come with consequences. It certainly did for MacDonald who in 1931 privately remarked that his government was “too much of the onlooker oppressed by circumstances”.

[See also: What is Labour for?]

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