The cyclical theory of Labour

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.

  1. a warning there for advocates of a UKIP alliance on the right []
  2. Of course the sad death of John Smith, like that of Gaitskell, meant that there was always a hankering among some in the party for a victory left unwon []

11 Responses to “The cyclical theory of Labour”

  1. jdc

    “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?”

    Haven’t the Lib Dems cornered that tiny slice of the market?

  2. Carl Gardner

    Interesting as always.

    It strikes me reading your analysis that Ed Miliband is a bit like Harold Wilson (who’s also often credited with holding Labour together while he was leader). Elected in a sense from the left, he exasperates the Labour right and disappoints the left, but neither has a clear alternative to offer, or is prepared to try and replace him.

    Second, although it’s received wisdom that “people don’t vote for divided parties”, Ed’s leadership shows unity isn’t enough in itself. Labour is pretty disciplined and has a non-bonkers policy offer – and ought to be strolling into power next year. Why isn’t it streets ahead?

    Third, a victory would be a victory of course, but if Labour does win a majority in 2015, I see serious inner-party strife ahead. I can easily imagine Ed being cast as a “traitor” by many on the left – the deficit won’t disappear magically if he gets in. The “betrayal myth” Tony Blair talks about could come back, big time. In some ways, I wonder if PM Miliband, like PM Cameron, might actually be in a stronger position in his own party if in coalition with the LibDems.

    Finally (then I’ll stop going on), the very last thing I want to see is a Labour party “radical when it comes to structure of politics and the state itself”. I think that’d be disastrous, and a place for Labour not to go. It’s a form of displacement “radicalism”: very few voters actually care about regional government, codified constitutions and all that stuff. It’s wonky and “irrelevant to the real needs” to quote Kinnock. If Ed insists on it, I think the public will end up telling him where to go – like over AV, which he should have learnt from. Also, it’s fundamentally the LibDem/SNP agenda. Labour can’t “out-UKIP” them, either, but can feed them.

    Labour would be far, far better off drawing a line under “the Vow”, accepting McKay on “EVEL” (which is nothing like as politically toxic as Labour seems to assume) and then binning this constitutional convention stuff (along with any thoughts of EU referendums). Much better to focus on the really important socio-economic stuff, like housing and the quality of life for renters, what to do about long-term care, pensions, finding decent answers on welfare, making poorer neighbourhoods more liveable, public health and improving the NHS, getting unfair dismissal rights back, pay – all the things Labour is really there for.

  3. Harry Barnes

    Perhaps Ed is aware of the dangers of the cyclical problem in modern Labour Party and is trying to move us into the positions adopted in the National Policy Forum Documents, as endorsed at the recent Labour Party Conference . These offer no clear ideological arrow of direction; but if we can only win the next election they might open the door to clearer, modern day, democratic socialist advances. For more on this possibility, see

  4. Newmania

    Excuse me

    I was going to say that I don`t recognize the alternatives for Labour the way you put them. I`m not exactly sure what Nordic socialism means , perhaps starting with an ethnically homogeneous country, a less re distributive tax regime and a looser business environment; that’s all Nordic too. Still , lets presume it means what it is usually meant to mean, the world as imagined by the Guardian. I`d have thought that was about as left wing as you go in this country .
    Isn`t the decision for Labour along another fault line far to the right . We have Blair to thank for our relatively efficient NHS due to his introduction of competition. Will the Labour Party return to that popular road of pragmatic means for social ends or will it continue to pretend that every reform to the NHS is a secret plot to remove it, and stay committed to the big state solutions of its past.
    Its not just ideology either is it .The public sector unions , their funding and votes, won’t appreciate anything that disturbs their sweet deal and Ed is, after all , their boy.

    I really enjoyed the sketch of the past Hopi I read an article about Toynbee Hall the other day and was struck at how the “progressive “ side of politics was not just the Labour Party or just one set of ideas . Probably just me.

  5. Robert

    Ed is giving us a big speech about cuts today we are told the rich will pay more, but we will see?, we are told the public services will see cut and serious cuts, we will see.

    But I think labour will move much closer to the Tories and it’s going to be a choice of a centrists Labour party closer to New labour to defeat the Tories by trying to get those swing voters.

    Progress and New labour against the SNP in Scotland which may well see labour losing a pile of seats.
    We are seeing labour attacking Immigrants saying we were wrong so they are worried over the loss of voters to UKIP.

    Not to sure if I think Miliband is not only good enough but he’s not clever enough to get enough swing voters.

  6. David Walsh

    I think the first phase of “the debate” that Hopi outlined was over a slightly longer timeframe than 1900 – 06. I feelrather that it was not resolved until 1920 influenced and underwritten by the Webb constitution and the growing appreciation of the crucial role of the state in social and economic policy making (as against an older, more fluffy, ILP belief that a better life was possible based on a growing popular acceptance of ‘fairness’)

    • Alan Griffiths

      ” older, more fluffy, ILP belief that a better life was possible based on a growing popular acceptance of ‘fairness’”

      Some of those old ILPers were still around in the 1970s.

  7. JWH

    I think the Labour Party is still trying to move on from “Brownism”; he changed the level of spending on Health and Education and has made it very hard for anyone to reduce spending in those areas; buthis failure to finance this with anything but borrowing has meant that everything else the Labour Party/country cares about will reduced to a skeletal level until private sector growth recovers or until the left’s thinkers find a new paradigm (presuming that they aren’t going to try and win a simple mandate for big increases in taxation). It isn’t so much a “debate” that is needed but some new thought about how to deal with the fundamentals.

  8. John P Reid

    There wasnt a sea change too the Toeies in 2010 ,the way there was in 31 or 79 and Tedhnically 1951′ although that was a change towards accepting Labour policies, rather than huge cuts, if the Tories form a new government and the 35% strategy, is seen to be a failure, then labour will face civil war, Ed will want to stay on and unless, Blue labours working class, Progress and a energetic, young idea logical leader with union backing emerges, we’ll be stuck with him, as such if Labour lose in 2020 then the civil war will be worse as it’ll be said that the right of the party will have cost us 3 elections on the trot,


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