Rethinking Labour’s Past

I have always believed that as a party, Labour can learn and draw inspiration from its history. Our party’s historic achievements help define what it is to be Labour. Labour was founded to give voice to working people at a time before all men, and any women, had the vote.

Ours is a history of nation-building – from municipal socialists building libraries, public baths, housing, utilities, hospitals and local parks – through to the construction of a new settlement after 1945, creating modern industries, the infrastructure of a modern welfare state, and raising the standard of living for all. Labour spoke in the name of the people against private interests and insular elites which held back investment, that inhibited the modernisation of our country, and clung on to undue privilege. It stood for fair rewards for workers, and for greater security for families, communities and the nation. After the extraordinary collective effort that got us through the darkest moments of the pandemic, I am certain those values resonate as strongly as ever.

For me, exploring Labour’s history has had a personal dimension too. When I was first elected to Parliament in 2010, I set out to explore the life story of Alice Bacon, the only woman before me to represent the city of Leeds in Parliament. Alice’s story was not so uncommon in her generation, but is all too rare today. From a working-class home in inter-war Normanton, Alice would go on to play a key role in some of the Wilson governments’ greatest achievements: the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexuality, the abolition of the death penalty, and the introduction and extension of comprehensive education.

That research prompted me to go back and study the experiences of Labour women MPs across the last hundred years – from the first interwar trailblazers, through to those who have inspired me personally in my own lifetime, from Tessa Jowell to Harriet Harman. Each faced common obstacles and their own distinctive challenges. Women in Labour politics brought their own understanding of the struggles of working people. They sought to expand politics beyond the boundaries of the unionised workplace and parliament, into the community, the chapel and the home.

As Education Secretary, Ellen Wilkinson introduced free school milk and – despite resistance from male colleagues – raised the school leaving age. Margaret Bondfield fought for the provision of footwear for poor children. And Susan Lawrence, radicalised by the low pay and poor conditions of cleaners employed by the London County Council, led the charge for widows’ pensions. From Barbara Castle and Child Benefit, to Tessa Jowell and SureStart, to Harriet Harman and the Equality Act, Labour women followed in a proud tradition.

But as many of the essays in Rethinking Labour’s Past make clear, returning to Labour’s past can’t all be about celebrating our achievements and luxuriating in our own mythology, without taking a hard look at our history; lazy assumptions and self-congratulatory narratives do us no good.

I first entered Parliament in May 2010; the first of four successive General Election defeats. It has rarely been easy. But history tells us we have been here before. A consideration of Labour’s slow, painful process of political renewal before 1997 illustrates the scale of political, intellectual and organisational work that took place over almost two decades to bring us to that point.

Contributions to this book return us to past debates and stories told about Labour’s purpose and how to adapt to a changing society. They remind us that few of the questions we face today are wholly new; and that they are best understood with an eye on how they have been negotiated, successfully or otherwise, in the past. The struggle to adapt social democracy, and its enduring values, to a continually changing economy and an evolving society is the central feature of Labour’s history since its first, short-lived experiences of government in the inter-war years.

That task – applying those values, building that stronger, fairer country and extending security and opportunity to all – remains the same. Attention to that history tells us, however, that without a deep understanding of how society has changed, of the big economic challenges we face, and of what people want from their lives – and an ambitious, inclusive vision for the future of the United Kingdom – then we will go nowhere and change nothing.

In the 2020s, that will mean, for instance, action to match the scale of the climate crisis; to reindustrialise swathes of the country through our Climate Investment Pledge and our plan to buy, make and sell more in Britain; and to tackle the insecurity found in the workplace and strengthen our everyday economy, so we are never again left so exposed to a crisis. When we win it is because we look to the future, inspire, and modernise.

We cannot repeat the formula of 1945, 1964 and 1997 – but we can certainly learn from how Labour leaders then steered our party from the wilderness to power. We can seek to understand their successes and failures in turn in order to follow them in transforming lives.

It has been fantastic to see the interest in Rethinking Labour’s Past, which brings cutting-edge historical insight, in a real spirit of pluralism, to debates that remain live and pressing in the political arena. It is a valuable contribution to a debate that needs to draw on the widest possible range of insight and experience, as we look ahead towards a General Election – and, we hope, to government.

This piece is part of a series covering the themes of Rethinking Labour’s Past, check out the previous piece Why political activists should care about history, here.