One of my pet theories is that every quarter-century or so, the Labour party goes through a defining debate about the sort of party it should be. We’re overdue such a debate now.
The first of these defining rows was about whether a party of Labour was needed and if so, what form it should take. This began with the debate over the creation of the Labour representation committee in 1900 and was resolved with the formal creation of the Labour party in 1906, after a pact with the Liberals gave Labour MPs a significant parliamentary presence1
The second debate begins with the shattering failure of the MacDonald government. From 1931 to 1935, Labour was led by Henderson and Lansbury, and while their radical energy was vital for the continued survival of the Labour party their tradition of political nonconformism tinged with pacifism was ultimately crushed by Union-led pragmatism and willingness to support a military build up and socialisation driven by a powerful central state.
The third debate came after the departure of Attlee in the late-fifties. The Bevanite rebellion predated the election of Gaitskell, of course, but the bitter debates over how the party should move forward was only fought to the (near literal) death after the old man and his authority left the scene.
Was Labour to be a truly socialist party, or a social-democratic one? This question led to a sustained Bevanite challenge to Gaitskell over issues like clause IV of the party and the extent of nationalisation, a debate only truly resolved after the death of both men. Gaitskell had, by 1963, established firm control of the party, but his death meant that a former Bevanite was able to steer a middle path between both forces, a course which was both electorally successful and ideologically inconsistent.
The last huge debate on the future of the Labour party came, not with New Labour, but in the mid-Eighties, when a genuinely radical alternative socialist ideology was put forward and ultimately defeated. That battle felt like one of life and death. It was resolved by victory of the diminished Social-Democratic wing of the party in supportive alliance with the more moderate section of those opposed to the previous Wilsonian pragmatism.
After that victory was won, the only open question was what compromises with the electorate was needed in order to secure victory. It took three elections and three leaders, but Labour finally found a satisfactory answer2. That led the way for a settled period of political direction that ended ideologically with the great recession and politically with the leadership of Gordon Brown.
What of today?
In many ways, the true achievement of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour party has been to avoid such rupture and schism. While there has been an attempt to establish various ideological Milibandisms (Predistribution, One Nation, Fairness, Together and so on) and the leadership of the party has been consistent in it’s renewed focus on the evil of inequality, the real mark of the Labour movement has been the attempt to bury differences in order to secure victory. In the Kingdom of Ed M, the Liam shall lie down with the Len.
This has been a noble and worthy effort. I’m not one of those who regards unity as a negative. However, I can’t see it lasting beyond the next election.
If we win, the challenges of government will force open the debate on what sort of party we should be. because there will be little room for even the maintenance of public spending without either public service ‘reform’ or tax increases (and most likely both).
Under such pressures, those who call for greater and more radical redistribution will feel little duty to be loyal to an agenda that they regard as unsatisfactory, while those who support a course of moderated restraint and strategic investment will not wish to see significantly increased services spending, wage increases or higher tax. Finally of course, there is the question of what sort of majority a Labour government will have, and to what extent it will need to rely on outside support to govern, which will invite the question of which, if any, support to seek.
That debate will be painful, but the duty and power of government will make it much more straightforward than you might expect. Power will hand authority and leadership to one group, should they choose to use it to set political direction. Ultimately, the dissenters (of any sort) will be forced to submit or leave.
If we lose, we will need to decide, in opposition, what sort of party we seek to be.
The choices will be pretty clear: Do we want to continue with the Nordic-Germanic social democracy we’ve pursued over the last few years, do we want to embrace the radical alternative that has been sketched by some socialist figures in the broader Labour movement, or do we want to attempt to redefine the Labour party in an era when the nature of Labour itself is in flux, perhaps offering a prospectus that is at once fiscally cautious, reforming on social and gender politics but radical when it comes to structure of politics and the state itself?
The bad news for the Labour party is that such battles tend to be pretty agonising.
The good news it that we usually come up with a pretty settled answer, one that last for a good couple of decades.------------------------------------------------------------------------------