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Why political activists should care about history

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One hundred and twenty-two years on from the founding of the Labour Representation Committee, 116 from the founding of the Parliamentary Labour Party and 100 years since Labour became the official opposition, what can history teach us about the way forward?

As a political activist for over 50 years, I reckon it’s time to re-find one of the lost arts of political development – our own history.  Whilst economics, political science, psephology and sociology play a part in our analysis of society and search for new solutions, it’s often the lessons of our past – what was tried and failed, what was tried and succeeded, the role of structures, of personalities, of external events, how we governed, or failed to govern – that can help plot a path to make our ambitions a reality.

This is why I think Rethinking Labour’s Past is so important.

Labour has won just eight elections with an overall majority – and only five with a majority in double figures.  Whilst for some that paints the reality of the challenge, the ever-optimistic Nick Thomas-Symonds (also a historian and contributor to the book) draws from this the lesson that we can recover.

Sweeping views of the past century do point to the commonality of Labour victories. They happened when we were united, when we spoke for and with the unions, were in tune with voters’ concerns, when our aspirations were their aspirations. And when we were patriotic.

What created that coalition of attributes? This volume of essays points of the importance of individuals (leaders), as well as to the interplay of circumstances and personalities, and reminds us of the zeitgeist of the times.  Patrick Diamond quoting John Gyford, not from this century, but immediately after the 1970 defeat: “The sense of estrangement felt by many working class voters towards a government whose politics sometimes seems to bear little relation to the realities of the everyday life of ordinary people, and whose concern for permissive legislation, the arts, [and] higher education… could not mask its failure to deal… with housing, unemployment and the cost of living”.

One politician of the time, Tony Crosland, warned that Labour’s increasingly middle-class leadership risked losing focus on its traditional supporters, leaders who’d hardly ventured from London and who were deaf, even then, to issues about immigration.

Crosland’s preoccupation with a more classless society made him concentrate on that perennial problem of HOW to address harsh, specific and unmerited inequality. As he wrote in Socialism Now, carrying “through a radical, equalitarian programme, involving a major redistribution of resources, is a formidable task”.

Which is why – for me, as a political player more than as a historian – we need to understand and interrogate our history.  Since 1900 our members and leaders shared the common endeavour:  to win power to change society, but importantly, to fashion the policies and what we now call “agency” to make things happen.

Neither our leaders nor the movement were asleep at the wheel, uncaring or lacking diligence.  So, we must grasp why they were not always able to make and embed seismic changes and then go on to win elections.

Glen O’Hara recalls Edmund Dell’s warning that “British governments have learned few lessons from… history… Parties continue to promise what they cannot deliver”. In 1945 and 1997 we called the big questions right (NHS or education), and did what we promised, but still we failed to satisfy a changing economy, new expectations, a trusting electorate. And over Brexit, did we fail to hear, or fail to heed?

Unless we understand not just what we got right and what we got wrong, but why and how we got things right or wrong, the tragedy would be to repeat the history. Just five majorities in double figures.  We must do better, not just to win, but to govern. And that, for me, is the issue – what we actually do in office.

Nathan Yeowell describes 1997-2010 as “by far the most electorally successful, continuously sustained period of government in Labour’s history”.  Yet for a dozen years large parts of the movement spent energy disparaging it.  And even those who knew better failed to celebrate and commemorate what was achieved. As the book, chapter by chapter, testifies, it’s hard work to make fundamental changes.  Hopefully the pages will provide some of the clues to ensure our future steps are surer.

This blog is part of a series to celebrate the launch of the book, Rethinking Labour’s Past which takes a critical view of the narratives the party has accepted about itself, in the hope of offering a new platform for the future. To stay updated on the series and events around the book, subscribe to our newsletter.