Building the foundations for Labour’s future

The invasion of Ukraine marks the start of some quite frightening new era, the shape of which we don’t yet understand. Whether Putin’s aggression marks the start of a new ‘great game’ of powers and alliances struggling for land, or a tripartite ideological cold war between the West, Russia and China or something else entirely, we know the world has decisively changed.

Historians can point to the ‘great crashes’ and convulsions that have shaped the course of the last century or more. The February Revolution in 1917, World War Two and its aftermath, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the attack on the Twin Towers, and the financial crisis of 2008 all had far-reaching consequences for global politics – and an equally profound effect on the span and flow of British history.

To this list of era-defining global phenomena, we must now add Covid-19. The pandemic brought illness and tragedy to almost every community across the globe, transforming our priorities and perspectives, and reordering our sense of what matters. At home, it brought the interconnectedness of the UK’s fragmented society into focus, showing how reliant we all are on the lives of people whose contributions have been overlooked, from delivery drivers to supermarket shelf-stackers to social carers.

As we begin to think in earnest about the country’s post-pandemic future, we are reconnecting with the long-tail of several ‘crashes’ that combined to transform the UK in the 2010s. Though less stellar in a global context, they have shaken the very foundations of British politics and remain unresolved. As the immediate threat of Covid-19 recedes, they are now returning in sharper focus.

The first of these is Brexit, still not ‘done’ properly, despite the simplistic rhetoric of the government and at the expense of the long-term economic viability – not to mention geographic integrity – of the country.

The second, now inextricably linked with the first, is the ascendancy of Boris Johnson. Within the space of six months in 2019 he broke and then recast the Conservative Party in his image and as his own, personal political vehicle, securing the Tories’ largest parliamentary majority since 1987. With scant contrition for the growing list of lockdown offences nailed to the door of Number Ten – and running away from his incarnation as Russian Oligarch’s friend – it is clear that both his party and the state are degraded by his continuation in office. As with Trump, it is an open question whether Johnson’s brand of populism is an aberration or the sign of things to come.

The third is the ongoing realignment and reimagining of the Labour Party. With hindsight, Labour’s post-2010 failure to promote a wide-ranging and candid debate about either the record of the Blair and Brown governments, or the changing nature of British society, began to pave the way for defeat in 2015. After a further four years of hard-left experimentation under the titular leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, by 2019 Labour found itself on the very brink of political, moral, and electoral collapse. Alienated from its supposed core vote and mired in a vicious antisemitism crisis of its own making, Labour was reduced to a mere 202 MPs in the new House of Commons, its worst performance since 1935.

Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader in April 2020 gave the party a much-needed reprieve. He took the reins, and must define his programme, in a time where much of the conventional political activity was jammed by Covid-19 and old certainties were being upended. A Conservative government whose unifying purpose was to reduce supposed restrictions on the free market and free trade, has found itself imposing curbs on liberty and spending cash like a drunken sailor. The next election, unlike its predecessors, will not be about levels of public spending. Labour members must be ready to adapt to this and recognise that the rise of Johnson, the defeat of Corbynism, Brexit and Covid-19 – combined with the urgent need to tackle the climate emergency and forge a new, enduring post-Covid economic settlement – all represent as much of a natural breakpoint in the history of the party as of the country.

Starmer’s Labour has an opportunity to craft a new narrative defining a new future for country and party alike. This requires intellectual renewal and can only emerge from an open and honest debate. Groups within Labour, such as Labour Together, and those hoping to map out somehow-adjacent territory, such as the Britain Project, have already set out their stalls, and more voices will be welcome. It will require open exploration of ideas of how to place our enduring values into the context of the new.

Crucial to any fashioning of the future must be a better understanding of our past. Historical exploration is neither a displacement activity from the urgent task of understanding the sociological and economic complexities of modern society, nor is it an academic exercise divorced from contemporary policymaking. In fact, it is central to both. That’s why I have edited Rethinking Labour’s Past, a collection of essays by leading historians, revisiting Labour’s history. The central thesis is that Labour’s history cannot be understood in binary black and white terms – with goodies and baddies, heroes and traitors, good and evil.

Some on the left of the party would have it that Labour in government between 1997 and 2010 was a continuation of the Thatcher years, with no difference before or after 1997. Some on the moderate wing seemed to argue that nothing good happened before 1994, and everything before that year could be dismissed as ‘old Labour’. Both approaches are ahistorical as well as unhelpful. Historian David Egerton makes the point that Labour’s call on its own history is ‘often a version of history that never really happened.’ He writes ‘Labour’s past is a resource, an important one, for the party. But too often the usually recalled history does not do justice to the variety of Labour’s policies, politics and practices, which were never fixed in time, nor easily understood on the usually defined left-right axis.’

More useful is a better understanding of the ideological continuum that has sustained the party since 1900. I argue that there have been three overlapping but distinct periods for Labour, defined by specific ideological and organisational themes, falling between 1900 to 1931, 1931 to 1979, and 1979 to 2019. The first period is kicked off by the formation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) at the Memorial Hall, Farringdon, London, by trade unionists and socialists dedicated to increasing ‘labour’ representation in Parliament, and rejecting forms of socialism by permeation, socialism by insurrection, or socialism resulting from inexorable ‘scientific’ historical laws.

In 25 years, the Labour Party went from ginger group to the main alternative to the Conservative Party, supplanting the Liberals and, crucially, winning over working class Tories. Labour’s socialism was not based on class conflict, but instead a project of social transformation rooted in community and fellowship. This ‘ethical’ socialism, born from late-Victorian radicalism, liberalism and non-conformism, was tested to destruction by the crash of 1929, the brief period of Labour administration 1929-31, and the disastrous split precipitated by Ramsay MacDonald.

The party’s second age lasted from 1931 to 1979, during which Labour enjoyed more years in government than any other time before or since: the wartime coalition 1940-1945, the 1945-51 Attlee government, and Wilson and Callaghan’s governments 1964-1970 and 1974-1979. This was a half century when Labour was converted to economic theory as the touchstone of political activity. It saw the rise and fall of Labourism as the dominant expression of this activity – and the party’s legitimisation within the prevailing political framework of the UK as a result. With Keynes as guide, and Bevin at the tiller as moderate unions reasserted control over the NEC and policymaking, Labour set a course to the New Jerusalem. But unlike earlier incarnations of British socialisms, this was a New Jerusalem built in bricks and mortar, not through personal transformation or on some distant shore. It could be seen in new houses in new towns, in new colleges and universities, in new hospitals and new town halls. This was the New Britain – nation-building, not class war.

Labour’s third age was book-ended by defeat: at the hands of Mrs Thatcher in 1979 and Boris Johnson in 2019. This period encompasses the Blair and Brown governments, by far the most electorally successful and sustained period of Labour in government. It also contains the two darkest periods of rancour and sectarianism in Labour’s history, and the twin near-death experiences of 1983 and 2019.

The successes should be seen as reactions to the disasters. By the mid-1980s, Labour’s debates were framed by the long-term decline of democratic socialist and social democratic electoral fortunes across the world. Revitalisation came in the form of engagement with ideas around constitutional reform, environmentalism, a new enthusiasm for Europe, and what Patrick Diamond has called ‘a multitude of ideas from diverse sources and intellectual traditions.’ The transformation of the global economy, Mrs Thatcher’s systematic exclusion of organised labour, and the collapse of Communism at the end of the decade catalysed the revival of non-Marxist, values-based socialism anchored in welfare systems, mixed economies, and democratic institutions.

Now we stand at the gilded gates of Labour’s fourth age. To succeed again, Labour must address and answer some fundamental questions – who do we speak for, and to what end? And what do we do if our overtures to the hard-working people of Britain are not reciprocated? We must decide what intellectual, and ideological themes we want to pursue, and those we reject. We must refine and champion a new progressive, social-democratic vision of life in twenty-first Britain. I believe that engaging with our past is the surest route to Labour owning the future – not to live in the past but to learn from it. That’s the big idea of Rethinking Labour’s Past.

However, it is not enough to understand and learn the lessons of history. The point is to act on them. I offer three thoughts to help the process. First, it is vital that Labour ditches the ‘them-and-us’ rhetoric of the past few years and moves away from binary, antagonistic political positions in favour of a nation-building political project. A good example is rethinking the world of work, and the opportunities as well as risks of greater automation, flexible working, career mobility, and shorter working hours. When Labour talks about ‘jobs’ and ‘work’ it can sound like it still means the foundry, factory, mill or mine. Most workers work across many jobs and sectors, do irregular hours, and do not belong to a trade union. Labour must talk in a language that chimes with this new workforce. We must sound ebullient, optimistic, aspirational.

Second, our fourth age gives us a platform for ideological renewal. This should be anchored in a belief in community, a revitalised economic (and crucially environmental) theory and an enduring commitment to social policy and welfare provision. ‘Social security’ should be a lifelong guarantee, not a byword for a broken system of welfare. Our mission must be national renewal, but that starts with the local. Deep in our DNA, before 1945, was municipal pride and a commitment to services delivered locally and democratically. David Miliband wrote in 2010: ‘default statism turns citizens into consumers and makes government a giant problem solver, which only increases our technical managerialism.’ We need democratic revival and rewards for active citizenship. This is key not only to economic revitalisation and societal reconstruction, but also electoral revival.

Third, we need some big ambitions. Not, as in 2019, so absurd and outlandish that they provoked ridicule, but bold enough to show we understand the scale of the challenges. We can construct a coalition committed to tackling the deep-seated inequalities within communities, and between different parts of the country, which the pandemic has so cruelly revealed. We can advance opportunity, economic efficiency, climate and social justice. We can be part of the successful revival of our style of politics, from Portugal, to New Zealand, to the United States. Populism has failed in the face of pandemic. Unfettered markets have failed to deliver safe streets, secure homes, or a stable climate. Less government has meant less freedom and fewer opportunities. This is the moment for Labour, drawing on its rich history but fixed on its future, to deliver the leadership the country so badly needs and deserves.

 Rethinking Labour’s Past is out now from I. B. Tauris/Bloomsbury and the other blogs in the series can be found here.