Keir Starmer celebrates his sixtieth birthday this weekend. When he’s blown out his candles, maybe he will consider the past couple of years. The opinion polls show a remarkable turnaround in Labour’s standing since the wasteland of 2019, especially on economic competence. Starmer has brought Labour back from the dead. This week’s national executive results consolidate his position on the party’s ruling body, with 28 NEC members supportive of his leadership, opposed to 11 who want to tear him down. Despite this wreckers’ bloc, Starmer now can move the party further in the direction he wants. As he made clear in interviews this week, that direction is towards Downing Street.
Yet there is absolutely no room for complacency. Some of the figures elected to the NEC have abhorrent views on antisemitism, have defended some of the very worst offenders, and will use their platform to resist further action to drive out Labour’s racists. There is still a group in the party who believe the period 2015-2019 was some kind of high watermark in Labour’s fortunes, and want to re-enact it in perpetuity. The NEC results give us hope and also serve as a reminder that la lutta continua. For Labour there are huge struggles ahead. Starmer will need focus and courage.
I was reminded of courage this week with the sad passing of Giles Radice. Radice was a Labour MP and peer, but his main legacy is contained to two pieces of work. One was the Southern Discomfort project which he led for the Fabian Society, which challenged a Scottish, Welsh, London and Northern England-dominated Labour Party that it must win in the south of England. By investigating voters’ attitudes in Gravesham, Harlow, Luton South, Slough and Stevenage after the 1992 election, Radice set out a roadmap for Labour to win back these Labour-sceptic southern voters. Economic credibility was top of their list. In 1992 Labour lost those five seats; in 1997 we won them, and it was no coincidence.
The second of Radice’s significant contributions was Labour’s Path to Power: The New Revisionism in 1989. Few political writers can claim such impact or prophesy. His book was a hard-hitting, no-nonsense explanation of how and why Labour should modernise, or be doomed to a slow death. By anchoring his work in the European revisionist tradition, starting with Bernstein, via Bad Godesberg, to Gaitskell, to Crosland, he showed that Labour modernisation is not a compromise or sell-out, but a durable political method to deliver electoral success.
Radice set out four components to successful revisionism: first, analysing what is actually happening as opposed to what a particular dogma says ought to happen, second distinguishing clearly between values and methods, thirdly, subjecting values and methods to scrutiny, and – if necessary – being prepared to modify these in the light of changing circumstances, and fourth, supporting open and pluralistic procedures by which ideas and policies are not only tested against criticism but changed in the light of that criticism. He says: ‘…revisionism is a radical cast of mind, a critical way of evaluating human affairs and politics, in order to develop strategies and policies which take account of change.’
Radice’s conclusions from this method were that Labour should become a ‘citizen’s party’ for the majority, a party of social justice and fair distribution of resources, committed to reducing inequalities, coupled with the expansion of freedom, opportunity and choice and higher standards of living. He was pro-European, anti-nationalisation, pro-Nato, and fiercely against the Leninists who ‘have fed off the Labour Party.’ He wrote ‘A Labour Party which is seen to be effectively sorting out anti-democratic elements within its own ranks is more likely to be entrusted with running the country.’ Those Labour majorities of 179, 167, and 66 owe a vast amount to Radice and the other modernisers who spoke out and organised in the 1980s and 1990s.
But there are also lessons for today’s modernisers. The parallels are stark: Labour languishing in opposition after a run of defeats, a Tory party swapping leaders purely for electoral advantage, and a public wary of Labour extremism and profligacy. There are those who confuse ends and means, and stick to outdated dogma. There are those who think shouting ‘Starmer Out’ is a winning formula.
And there are those brave souls willing to show courage, like the decent folks who find themselves on the NEC and the national policy forum (NPF) after this year’s elections. Sure, there will be people for whom the 2019 Labour manifesto is Holy Writ, and any deviation is apostasy. But they are wrong. Ossified, unreflective, immutable cult-like faith is no answer to climate change or the cost-of-living crisis.
The answer lies in further and faster modernisation of Labour’s policies, organisation and internal culture, guided by revisionism. Revisionism is, by definition, a method that can be applied to modern problems from gas prices to sewage on the beaches. It gives us the political space to construct new platforms, without losing focus on why we’re here. Devising policies to fix problems is harder than sloganising and marching up and down, but far more effective. The means will differ in each specific circumstance, but the ends – social justice, equality, liberty – remain the same. Bernstein knew it, Crosland knew it, Radice knew it, and I trust that Keir Starmer knows it too. Happy birthday.
If you enjoyed this Paul on Politics, check out his previous issue: The Labour Party is a Party for Government, Not Protest.