The choice before the Labour party

Does Labour wish to fight for a better deal within the system, or change the system?

Dan Hind
19 July 2016


By R._H._Tawney.jpg: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Sciencederivative work: nagualdesign (talk) - This file was derived from R. H. Tawney.jpg:, Public Domain

In 1932 R.H. Tawney set out to describe the choice before Labour. The party was in a shambles. A minority government led by Ramsay Macdonald had collapsed under the impact of the slump in 1931. Macdonald now led a national government that included Liberals and Conservatives as well as ‘National Labour’ Members of Parliament. The Labour party itself was reduced from 287 MPs in 1929 to only 46. It was an electoral catastrophe from which Labour would not recover until 1945.

Tawney argued that the Labour party had to decide what it was for. It could either set out to secure material improvements for its supporters within the overarching framework of a capitalist system or it could set out to create a new system altogether:

The Labour party can either be a political agent, pressing in Parliament the claims of different groups of wage-earners; or it can be an instrument for the establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth, which alone, on its own principles, would meet those claims effectively, but would not meet them at once.

Underlying this question for the party was a question for the country as a whole, the fundamental and perennial question, ‘who is to be master?’ Is society to be dominated by a few hundred thousand bankers, industrialists and landowners? Or will the whole nation come to comprehend and control its economic policy and ‘distribute the product of its labours in accordance with some generally recognised principles of justice?’

If the Labour party chose the latter course it would have to formulate ‘a Labour policy which is relevant and up-to-date’ – in other words it would have to give technical substance to the notion of a Socialist Commonwealth. But it would also have to make a sober assessment of the opposition that its programme would provoke and then explain its aims ‘with complete openness and candour’:

It cannot avoid the struggle, except by compromising its principles; it must, therefore, prepare for it. In order to prepare for it, it must create in advance a temper and mentality of a kind to carry it through, not one crisis, but a series of crises, to which the Zinovieff letter and the Press campaign of 1931 will prove, it is to be expected, to have been mere skirmishes of outposts. Onions can be eaten leaf by leaf, but you cannot skin a tiger paw by paw; vivisection is its trade and it does the skinning first. If the Labour Party is to tackle its job with some hope of success it must mobilise behind it a body of conviction as resolute and informed as the opposition in front of it.

The choice facing the Labour party in the current leadership election is not so very different from the choice facing it in the 1930s. Does it aim to secure concessions for its supporters from those who remain the masters? Or does it formulate a ‘relevant and up-to-date’ conception of a Socialist Commonwealth and pursue it as ‘the organ of a peaceful revolution’?

Those who wish the party to function as a vehicle for securing improvements within the existing order will have to give some account as to why they should be preferred over the capitalists, who at least understand the system and, in the naïve assessment of an unreformed public opinion, can be expected to keep it running reasonably effectively. They presumably wish the Labour party to function as a loyal opposition and to step in occasionally and govern along lines acceptable to the masters – an exception to rule by the propertied that proves their rule.

This is a seductive vision for many Labour party MPs. It means they can take up the cause of the little people in parliament and on television with tears in their eyes and a catch in their throats. They can oppose Conservative policies and denounce their unnecessary cruelty without having to worry about the necessary cruelty of our current system. Perhaps their sincerity and benevolence, set alongside the perfidy and unsavoury personal habits of the Conservatives, will eventually recommend them to the electorate. In the mean time they can compete for profile and reputation in the same circuits of political speech and commentary. Are they convincing parliamentary performers? Do they have what it takes to modernise the party and restore its appeal to floating voters in marginal constituencies? Does Andrew Neil think they have what it takes?

Those who want to secure this peaceful revolution, on the other hand, had better pay close attention to Tawney’s advice. The Socialist Commonwealth he envisaged used the visible institutions of the existing state to reduce social and economic inequality. War-time planning provided the model for post-war reconstruction. Its successor will have to learn from the shortcomings of this model as well as from its achievements and make the state itself into a commonly held resource. British socialism will have to take the constitution seriously.

British socialism will have to take the constitution seriously.

It is not enough to want this Socialist Commonwealth. It is not even enough to convert this desire into an up-to-date programme for government, daunting though the task is. You must make a sober assessment of the forces that will resist this programme and take the necessary steps to overcome them. The party will have to build a communications infrastructure that knits together a new political consensus in the way that unionised factories and barracks littered with Penguin Specials did in the 30s and 40s.

Yes, this will include social media accounts. But it will also require a great effort of production, explanation and debate; a publishing project stretching across print and digital media that is also a process of mutual enlightenment and a worked example of collective self-government. The common sense that confirmed the rule of the bankers, industrialists and landlords died in 2007-8. But, absent the open and candid elaboration of an alternative, that shambling mass of violent morality tales will not lie down.

So, by all means, make Labour into a party of peaceful revolution. But if you do you must grasp the implications with both hands. Yes, oppose austerity. But also describe a Britain where bankers, industrialists and landowners are no longer the masters. What would it mean to rule ourselves? What powers and instruments do we need? Answer those questions convincingly, and in a way that the great majority can hear, and you are on the way to your Socialist Commonwealth.

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