The Labour Party has faced two periods of real crisis since 1900 and now stands on the verge of a third. The first followed the crash of 1929, when the second Labour administration collapsed and Ramsay MacDonald formed the National Government. The second came with the party’s defeat in 1979, the ascendancy of neoliberalism, or Thatcherism, and Labour’s possible eclipse by a new third party in the early 1980s. If the decline in Labour’s fortunes since 1997 continues, a third crisis will occur after next year’s election. It took nearly 15 years for Labour to return to power after the first two crises and the resulting election defeats of 1931 and 1983. The stakes could not be higher.
We have lost many millions of voters since 1997. We have lost hundreds of thousands of members. We have become reviled by younger generations that view us as the party of the Establishment, war and insecurity. Our orthodoxy has defeated our radicalism. We speak a desiccated language of targets; our story, our essential ethic, has been lost on the altar of the focus group. We have retreated into what is essentially a Hobbesian utilitarianism, which considers self-interest as the only guiding principle. Alan Milburn recently described our goal as being to equip people to “earn and to own”; aspiration is reduced to a notion of acquisition. Materialism is all we have; we have lost the bright hope of building a different society.
The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson once said that “hope is the basic ingredient of all vitality”. At such moments of crisis and uncertainty, Labour often turns to its founding figure, Keir Hardie, for hope. But he has become a myth rather than a historical figure. We tend to look to him for reassurance, rather than to ask awkward questions. Hardie inspired total devotion. On his death, he was described as the “Member for Humanity”; Sylvia Pankhurst (a friend and onetime lover) simply saw him as the “greatest human being of our time”. He was worshipped among the grass roots. Some considered him, literally, to be a prophet.
At the same time, however, many thought him an extremist, impossible, unreliable and ill-disciplined. T D Benson of the Independent Labour Party said Hardie was, “by his very nature, incapable of working with a party”. At times he was isolated, and even resembled an outcast. His socialism belonged to a larger canvas than the day-to-day parliamentary grind. As his biographer, the historian Kenneth Morgan, states: “For a man of Hardie’s poetic, intuitive temperament, this unheroic, constructive labour was not enough. Beyond the day-to-day tactics there was a profound political, moral and emotional cause to be defined and fought for.”
It was this crusade and its associated idealism that inspired such hope and vitality among the party at large. With Hardie, it was not the detail of the policy or programme that was Labour’s true ideal; it was the “creed of fraternity and equality” – what type of society it sought, rather than the tactical calculus of Westminster. Certainly, Hardie was a man of contradictions. He was born into the working class, but he was never truly a part of it. Indeed, he didn’t properly fit in anywhere in society. He was never a social conservative, but bohemian in his dress and a dedicated supporter of feminism and Welshnationalism – the red dragon and the red flag. His nonconformism made him a brilliant alliance-maker and political pragmatist.
From his return to the House of Commons in 1900, Hardie became, as Morgan describes it, “the prophet of radical socialism in its highly distinctive Merthyr form”. This was a composite socialism emerging out of the distinct arc of Merthyr history, of early Chartism and the 1868 election of the pacifist Henry Richard, of the trades council movement in Merthyr and Aberdare, of the miners and the 1898 six-month strike, of its Christian traditions with its “social gospel” and, later, of the ILP. Cumulatively, it forged a non-doctrinal, working-class culture and movement; an ethical socialism that owed little to science – of neither right nor left – but much to the politics of progressive alliance.
What can this Hardie of contradictions teach us today? Like Robin Cook much later, he was never a “Labour man”, at home in the party. He understood that a party must give shape to a class and a class must create a party in its image – and that this involves an interdependence of feeling and thought. In contrast to the muscular secularism growing in the modern Labour Party, he expressed this in religious terms borrowed from Tennyson: “Ring out the darkness of the land,/ Ring in the Christ that is to be.”
He spoke in an almost messianic language to the people, and mirrored back to them a sense of their value and their capacity to change society. He gave them esteem, confidence and belief. In return, they gave him love and loyalty. David Farrell, an ILP member, wrote to him: “I have more love and reverence for you than I have for my own father.”
Yet Hardie was much more than a great communicator. He was also a great political strategist, willing to make alliances to advance the goal of working-class emancipation. His socialism was never rigid, doctrinal or dogmatic. By 1903, he had come around to forming an electoral coalition with the Liberals, with the ILP as its backbone. Later, as party leader, Hardie worked with Sir Charles Dilke – unofficial chair of the “social radicals” on the Liberal side – on labour issues. Even at the two elections of 1910, he maintained support for the alliance with the Liberals. Yet by 1912 he had badly fallen out with them, following the brutal industrial disputes and state responses at Tonypandy and Aberdare. His conditional, contingent relationship with progressive liberalism was a hallmark of his tactical brilliance.
Although we celebrate Hardie as the founder of the Labour Party, he also operated in the space between competing variants of liberalism: its radical, individualistic strands and a more collectivist social liberalism. A similar debate is emerging in the Labour Party today. Thinkers such as Will Hutton, Richard Reeves and Philip Collins argue that Labour should return to its ancestral roots and draw inspiration from the ideas and principles of British liberalism. Yet the liberalism they seek to rehabilitate is narrow and individualistic.
Many of the first generation of Labour leaders, like Hardie, had been active in the Liberal Party of William Gladstone and had broken with it only reluctantly. Their aim was not to repudiate the liberalism of their youth, but to realise its goals of human freedom and emancipation in the new and more challenging conditions of industrial capitalism.
Liberalism encompasses a broad range of ideas and beliefs, not all of them reconcilable. The writer and academic Mark Garnett has identified two rival modes of liberal thought, one “fleshed out”, the other “hollowed out”: “The former retains a close resemblance to the ideas of the great liberal thinkers, who were optimistic about human nature and envisaged a society made up of free, rational individuals, respecting themselves and others. The latter, by contrast, satisfies no more than the basic requirements of liberal thought. It reduces the concepts of reason and individual fulfilment to the lowest common denominator, identifying them with the pursuit of short-term material self-interest. For the hollowed-out liberal, other people are either means to an end, or obstacles which must be shunted aside. Instead of equality of respect, this is more like equality of contempt.”
This tension runs through liberal thought from Adam Smith to the present day. In its extreme laissez-faire variant, classical liberalism assumes a model of human behaviour as rational, acquisitive and ruthlessly self-interested. Its “fleshed-out” form was developed by the idealist philosopher T H Green, and taken up by L T Hobhouse and J A Hobson. Green rejected the atomistic individualism that sees human beings as impermeable, self-contained units enjoying natural rights but owing no corresponding social obligations. Instead, he saw society and the individuals within it as fundamentally interdependent: “Without society, no persons; this is as true as that without persons . . . there could be no such society as we know.”
This New Liberalism departed significantly from many of the precepts of classical liberalism. The New Liberals believed in progressive taxation to compensate for the unequal bargaining power of the marketplace and to pay for pensions and other forms of social security. They advocated the common ownership of natural monopolies and vital public services. They viewed property rights as conditional, not absolute, and subject to certain public-interest restrictions. They called for the limitation of working hours and new regulations to guarantee health and safety in the workplace. They stood behind the vision of a co-operative commonwealth built on explicitly moral foundations. As Hobhouse said: “We want a new spirit in economics – the spirit of mutual help, the sense of a common good. We want each man to feel that his daily work is a service to his kind, and that idleness and antisocial work are a disgrace.”
Hobhouse described himself as a liberal socialist and, unlike Mill, he meant it unambiguously. Hobson and several other New Liberals went a stage further and joined the Labour Party. Indeed, Green, Hobhouse and Hobson are rightly considered to be pioneers of the British tradition of ethical socialism. Their influence over the leading Labour intellectuals of the early 20th century – R H Tawney, G D H Cole and Harold Laski – was both profound and freely acknowledged.
Implied in the move to uncover and reconnect liberal traditions in our party is the view that the foundation of an independent Labour Party with a distinctively socialist outlook was a historic wrong turning, and that the progressive left would have been better off devoting its energies to building an enduring electoral base for a strong and reformed Liberal Party. This conclusion is not stated openly, but is implicit in much contemporary discussion. Hardie, however, would have been appalled. And so should we today.
If New Labour, at its best, embodied the high aspirations of fleshed-out liberalism, its restricted understanding of the scope for change betrayed the cynical assumptions of its hollowed-out alter ego. New Labour talked quite rightly about the need for the party to broaden its appeal to win the support of “aspirational” voters, but equated aspiration with nothing more than crude acquisitiveness – to “earn and to own” indeed.
In that New Labour bible, The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould made a revealing distinction when he described his parents as having “wanted to do what was right, not what was aspirational”. This betrays a fundamentally neoliberal mindset, and is quite an extraordinary statement of what we think people aspire to. The possibility that that which is right and the aspirational might overlap, even minimally, was never entertained.
As the late G A Cohen argued (see page 26), the problem is one of design. The technology for giving primacy to our acquisitive and selfish desires already exists in the form of a capitalist market economy. But we have not yet adequately devised the social technology capable of giving fullest expression to the generous and altruistic side of our personality. That is the main task of any future left.
Ethical socialism offers a materialist politics of the individual rooted in the social goods that give meaning to people’s lives: home, family, friendships, good work, locality and imaginary communities of belonging. It is this framework that has inspired the Labour Party at its best,transcends the sterile orthodoxies of both left and right, and remains the cornerstone of radicalism in the party. It is captured in the genius of Hardie as socialist, strategist, radical and liberal. It is built around a fundamentally different conception of the human condition from that of neoliberalism.
Echoing the words of Hardie, Tawney’s essay “The Choice before the Labour Party”, even though written in 1932, remains the best analysis of the crisis facing Labour today. It was written at the height of Labour’s first real crisis, and highlights the dilemma at the heart of the party: the tension between orthodoxy and radicalism, the whole exacerbated by a lack of core belief.
Each of these crises has been blamed on external events, not least epochal, historical transformations driven by economic recession. But we shouldn’t forget Labour’s inability to resolve its internal contradictions; historically, it has been not so much a broad church as a collection of fragments in search of unity. Writing about the debacle of the Labour Party in 1931, Tawney describes how the government “did not fall with a crash, in a tornado from the blue. But crawled slowly to its doom.”
Tawney’s words echo down the years. “The gravest weakness of British Labour is . . . its lack of creed. The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants.” He does not pull his punches. There is, he says, a “void in the mind of the Labour Party” which leads us into “intellectual timidity, conservatism, conventionality, which keeps policy trailing tardily in the rear of realities”.
Hardie and Tawney were part of a tradition that gives us hope and vitality, and charts a way out of the trap of orthodoxy. Now is the time for that tradition to be rediscovered.
Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham. He will give the Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture in Merthyr Tydfil on 11 September