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Wednesday 13 March 2019

Why Britain’s new political party sounds very old

  • The UK Labour Party – like a lot of left-wing bodies – has a long tradition of arguing about its own history, and trying to place politicians within a historical pantheon.
  • The new Independent Group of MPs was formed in February, with eight Labour MPs and three Tories. But the way its ex-Labour members spoke about the endeavour was purest Labour.
  • This saga has highlighted the very curious nature of Labour internal dynamics: people who want the most radical social change are considered conservative dinosaurs. The people who want the least are considered dynamic radicals.

By Emily Robinson

Fights within the UK Left often feel like history seminars: a surprising amount of time is devoted to deciding who owns what parts of the history and who is the rightful heir of whom. As the Labour Party splits, with the new Independent Group setting up, expect a lot of historiography.

This is not unusual for left-wing movements. Having been excluded from official accounts of national history, they tended to develop very strong cultures of memory. Labour, and the union movement that surrounds it, is no exception. It is built on a history of past struggles and martyrs.

That is part of the reason why so many arguments in the Labour Party boil down to who can make a better claim to their heroes and who can paint their opponents as heirs of traditional villains.

In the UK, the top trump in this game is, of course, Clement Attlee, the founder of the welfare state. And pity anyone who can be painted as the heir to Tony Blair – a truly career-limiting comparison.

Clement Attlee, Labour Prime Minister, 1945

But there’s a tension, too: politics is about controlling the future. And left-wing politics is about transforming it. So the rhetorical game is to find a way to sound forward-looking while claiming to be the intellectual heirs to a group of (largely) men born (largely) in the 19th century. Once you see that tension, you can understand a lot about the Labour Party.

Look at Blair’s argument in 1994 when he proposed that Labour drop its commitment to nationalising industries – something that had been part of Labour’s constitution since 1918. Blair presented the reform as a battle between past and future, between – as he would later put it – “the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism”.

Tony Blair owned the future but claimed the past

But – knowing the rules of the contest – Blair also argued that the proposed change was true to a more authentic Labour tradition of social liberalism, dating back to before the drafting of the party’s constitution in 1918. Much use was made of the words “re-establishing”, “re-foundation” and “regain”. Own the future, but claim the past.

Or take the arguments around the formation of The Independent Group of MPs, a new breakaway party formed in the past few weeks. Eight of its 11 MPs have come from Labour.

The 11 Independent Group MPs

On the one hand, they presented a classic “moderniser” argument – forward not back, upward not down, and so on. They were seeking to shock the party out of adherence to an ideology they characterised as “old-fashioned”, “outdated” and “locked in the old politics of the 20th century”.

On the other, they depicted themselves as the true representatives of Labour’s “traditional values”, which had now been “abandoned” by a party “changed beyond recognition”. Several prefaced their remarks with stories about their working-class backgrounds, labour movement roots and decades of service.

This came straight from the Social Democratic Party playbook, the last significant split within Labour. As Bob Maclennan put it in 1981: ‘‘I am not leaving the Labour Party; the Labour Party which I joined and to which I have been proud to belong during 15 years of public life has left me and many others like me.’

The SDP rooted themselves in a lineage stretching back through recent divisions, seeing themselves as the party of Gaitskell and Bevan – deceased heroes of the right and left of the party respectively. But also back to the foundation of the party and beyond.

Bob Maclennan believed the Labour Party had left him

Yet the SDP also went to great lengths to appear modern. They were the first party to use helicopters, computers and to take subscriptions by credit card. Unwilling to conform to old patterns, they held a “rolling conference” on a train, rather than in a tired seaside town, and refused to tie themselves to specific manifesto commitments for as long as they could. Their future thus remained an open possibility, much as TIG’s does today.

Both in 1981 and today, the response to this from the Left was to attack both claims.

Modernisers? Forward-facing? No. They were beholden to an empty vision of modernity, unable to envision a future different from what had gone before.

Both breakaways took place at a time when social democracy was seen to be in disarray and modernising centrism discredited. This left them open to the accusation of being throwbacks; a rather less creditable label than traditionalists.

This balancing act is no less fraught for the Left. They might have an easier time establishing authenticity, but to be “traditional” comes dangerously close to being “conservative” – an accusation that has been thrown at the Left throughout its history.

That creates a strange rhetorical dynamic inside the party. The Left, which wants the most change, is depicted as reactionary, while social democrats, who have done most to shape Labour’s history as a party of government, can be cast from its “true” traditions.

The truth is that these are not really battles between tradition and modernity, so much as contests between different visions of the future and different understandings of the past.

A Second World War propaganda poster

In 2006, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, now the Labour party leader and economic spokesman, both spoke at an event commemorating Labour’s centenary as a parliamentary party. They lamented the betrayal of its traditions and its current malaise.

The party had, just the year before, won its first ever third term in government. But this was contrasted unfavourably with the 1970s and 1980s when “the Party had plenty of activists and good campaigns although it lost elections”. Different understandings of the past underscore radically different understandings of what the Labour Party is and the role it should play in British political history.

Ramsay MacDonald left Labour in 1931

The idea that Labour leaders are bound to betray their party is a tradition in itself, dating back to Ramsay MacDonald, Labour’s first Prime Minister, who left his party in 1931 to become head of a Conservative-dominated National Government. As we’ve seen, this has been inverted by both SDP and TIG defectors claiming that the mass party has betrayed its parliamentary representatives – a rather different way of approaching Labour politics.

Fights within the UK left may revolve around a limited number of historical heroes and villains. The truth is, though, that these characters have different roles in each faction’s stories, pointing to deep disagreements about the kind of party Labour has been and should be in the future. What they share is a strange Labour argot, where everything is an argument about history.

The author is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sussex

The Independent Group

Despite being just weeks old, the Independent Group has its first pamphlet, writes Chris Cook. Chuka Umunna, the former Labour MP for Streatham, has penned a prospectus. True to Emily’s piece, it frames itself as an attempt to seize the “progressive tradition”.

These sorts of documents do not repay close attention. Just feel the texture. They tell you something about a politician’s priorities –  but do not look for a deliverable manifesto. The Umunna document is pro-market, social democratic and centre-centre-left:

  • Rather than defend the status quo or nationalisation of utilities, he proposes forcing companies providing “key public services to write the provision of public benefit into their constitution, taking precedence over profit-making”.
  • Executive pay is out of kilter, but Umunna wants “the best aspects of the market to flourish without having mandarins or ministers setting pay levels”. He proposes regulation to incentivise payments in “long-term equity and debt holdings” to tie the fortunes of managers to “the long-term fortunes of the company”.
  • He proposes retaining making students pay towards their study: “when public finances are very tight and there are many competing priorities, abolishing all tuition fees is not progressive”. Instead, he proposes means-testing fees.
  • He also proposes spending cash on a “Marshall Plan for skills”. It is not clear how this relates to the actual Marshall Plan, which was post-war assistance for Europe from the US. But he means spending more on non-university technical education.
  • He suggests higher taxes, including a tax earmarked for the NHS: “we cannot have Scandinavian levels of public service provision with American levels of taxation – we must be honest about that”.
  • Inspired by the Macron government, “a programme of national service that will have the effect of bolstering social cohesion for generations to come.” This is not a call for military service – that is, as he says, “the last thing the armed forces say they want” – but rather an attempt to create a sense of cross-class and cross-community common endeavour.
  • He proposes state-funded political parties; “as trade union membership declines and business donations dry up, there is a danger politics becomes the plaything of a few hyper-rich individuals”.


Further Reading:

All photographs by Getty Images