Why the left is right for Labour and Britain

Slurs against a revitalised Socialism insult the mainstream of Labour’s long history. Denial of that tradition has no place in the Labour Party.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
11 August 2015
Keir Hardie

In its 115 year history, the Labour Party has won eleven general elections. Flickr/People before profit. Some rights reserved.The current Labour leadership contest has produced some unhelpful interventions. A sense of alarm, if not of panic, is clearly in evidence. There are those who are engaged in yesterday’s language concerning yesterday’s battles. Trotskyism as a pejorative has very little to do with the cultivated revolutionary leader whose exile and death all but destroyed the Bolshevik dream of a fresh start for humanity. The accusation of Trotskyism is often pitifully inaccurate. The ‘infantile disorder’ of left wing extremism is not to be confused with credible political vision. To slur principled practice is itself infantile, and has no place in serious politics, although it may be found yet on the lips of an exhausted liberal consensus.

In its 115 year history the Labour Party has won eleven general elections. The first eight were with programmes defined by the amended and determinedly Socialist constitution drafted in 1918. The famous 1945 victory set Britain on a Social Democratic course that was accepted by Churchill and his successors. Four of those elections were won under Harold Wilson’s leadership. It is a record unsurpassed by any prime minister and equalled only by Gladstone. Edward Heath’s attempt to reverse the Social Democratic development proved abortive. The Labour government of 1974-79, guided by the veteran union leader Jack Jones, set a radical course of social experiment that was only narrowly defeated in 1979 after a ferociously negative media campaign. The general expectation was that Monetarist economics would prove as disastrous as Heath’s free market venture of 1970. It was luck rather than strategy that sustained the Conservatives for a long time after their 1979 victory.

Intellectual and moral failure

So far so credible as a very brief summary. From these points we may conclude that a programme of a definitely Socialist character is what the electorate expects of a Labour government. There is plenty of evidence [the eight victories] to demonstrate that Socialist government can succeed by popular will, but will fail by the essentially conservative [if not formally Conservative] nature of popular media.

The ninth victory was after the international deluge of neo-liberalism. The collapse of the Soviet model offered an opportunity for Fabian Socialism to assert its international role as the credible form of progressive government. Blair squandered his opportunity, preferring to push through a revision of aims. Behind the charm was an intolerance of opposition contrary to the Fabian tradition of vigorous debate. The price of New Labour’s electoral success was intellectual and moral failure.

At first New Labour had – just about – some plausibility. There were programmes of effective remedial action. In the real world a degree of private enterprise is both permissible and desirable. Pragmatic Marxists from Lenin to Mandela have accepted this. Blair’s victory in 1997 did not appear to deny a radical tradition. His success was secured by promises of a radical departure from neoliberalism. In the end all we saw were philistine values and perpetual war.

New Labour’s strategy may have won the 1997 election. But given the exhaustion of Conservative government by this time, a Labour government of any kind was very likely, if not inevitable. In the event the vagueness of detail couched in high-flown rhetoric betrayed the lack of an authentic radicalism in practice. The compromise with the free market emerged not as a tactical engagement but as an acceptance for which moral justification was sought after the fact. The claim that ‘social justice is based on prosperity’, and that this was a given of ethical principles, has no warrant in any serious moral tradition that one can name. The essence of Socialism lies in the belief [which precedes Socialism] that a sense of equity is based on conscience. Societies aiming at equitable provision are not necessarily prosperous. Indeed rarely are they so. And there is no evidence that wealth engenders a sense of social conscience, with the reverse being the more likely course. Personal wealth is notoriously corrupting. Conspicuous waste is a common symptom of abundance.

New Labour succeeded in alleviating the more deadly effects of the free market. It did not seek to restructure, or even to amend, the market economy. A reversion to thoroughly discredited economic principles became the norm. The centre moved drastically to the right, with New Labour perpetually seeking the centre ground.

The lack of intellectual substance was a marked retrogression. There was an absence of the thinking that produced Tawney’s The Radical Tradition or Laski’s Liberty in the Modern State, and all the required reading of committed Fabians. The library of pamphlets and books gathered dust as a way of regarding society was jettisoned in practice if not in name. The unthinkable became the acceptable. What was sought was the centre wherever that might be found. Concessions to the right became the norm among people who still thought they were in accord with the progressive and generous flow of things.

Labour in the Twentieth Century according to its constitution, could not seek the centre ground. The debacle of 1931 serves to illustrate this. The debate always has been between trade union consciousness and Socialist consciousness; between Social Democratic reform and Socialist revaluation; between sentimental class loyalty and reasoned Communitarianism. It was never Labour’s aim to seek the centre ground even though compromise in practice was inevitable.

An alternative agenda

But now, they will say, we are in a new century and modernisation is the key to electoral success. But seeking to make existing conditions work is a Liberal principle. Labour governments are elected as a clear alternative to pre-existing governance. Concessions to Conservatism have proved divisive and disastrous. An alternative agenda is the evidently preferred option. People vote Conservative for a period of economic growth, and Labour for an expansion of social justice. The perceived contrast may be false in actual economic history, but folk wisdom is more powerful than truth. The point, however, is that the public expectation of a Labour government is for a periodic rebalancing of the social and moral equilibrium.

Electoral success clearly depends on the development of policies of social protection and cultural expansion. There is no evidence that Labour governments are elected in the expectation of continuity with Conservative values. The experience of the 2015 debacle suggests that continuity is a losing strategy. It is simply not a realistic option for Labour to be a welfare capitalist party. That is not the electoral requirement.

It is often said that the Labour manifesto of 1983 was suicidal. But the facts are that the [well-intentioned] adventurism of the SDP, and a triumphalist romantic imperialism, and a vindictive media denigration of Michael Foot combined to ensure defeat for the impassioned and impressive radicalism in the mainstream Labour tradition. Unconfident and lightweight leadership for some time thereafter was no match for the belligerence of Tory reaction. The defeat of 1983 occurred in circumstances that show no sign of repetition.

There is no appetite now for war when military victories seem illusory and military ventures self-defeating. Tory glory looks tarnished now. The Labour Party in 2015 is not weakened by far left entryism deploying Stalinist tactics. The mainstream of thinking is determined by a rational advocacy of a progressive regeneration of values within the Labour movement and society at large. Far from being a reversal, it is timely remedial action. The Labour Party has been weakened for a generation by an opportunistic drift to the right. Surveys suggest that public opinion favours a return to the public sector of essential services, including financial services. It also favours policies devoted to international peace. There is popular concern about climate change. There is a consensus against bonus culture and the incursion of foreign oligarchs into commerce, property and the media. Public opinion is no longer persuaded by New Labour’s conduct. Authoritarian welfare capitalism is established now as a betrayal of principle, a shallow option followed by careerists and opportunists.

New Labour’s dictatorial language and manner displayed an ambition for power at any price. There was not a principle that could not be jettisoned, nor a loyal member who could not be cajoled, nor an idealist who could not be vilified. The lowest moment was surely when a veteran member, a refugee from the Third Reich, was ejected from the conference hall for mildly heckling in 2005, and subsequently was threatened with prosecution. That was New Labour at its rawest. It was caught on camera. It cannot be denied. It should not be forgotten.

The task of a serious progressive party is to build on the foundation of public approval for socially responsible government. Policies of partnership and co-operative management [and therefore an end to corporate hierarchies of obedience] need to be pursued through a reconnection with trade unions and the Co-operative societies. The Labour polity was never devoted solely to winning Westminster elections, although that has become the obsession in the commentaries. Industrial democracy, cultural democracy, social awareness and communication remain vital to a creative opposition and a creative revaluation. Labour needs to win over a public already partially persuaded in feeling if not in consciousness. There is no time, yet it will take time. Once the process begins it will find its dynamic. There is always tomorrow.

The current mood for disaffected Labour voters is to opt for romantic nationalism whether of left and right. Some accommodation with national and regional loyalties may be a means of expansion rather than a compromise. For one thing is clear: the metropolitan elites do not speak for ordinary people. If the rational left does not articulate the popular will the crazed right is sure to do so. The choice is not between centre left and centre right. The choice is between socially responsible, humane benevolence and a return to a world we thought was gone forever.

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