The Labour party: why do we bother?

by Jonathan Todd

Are we members of a socialist party, a social democratic party or neither of these things? Did we start self-identifying as social democrats when socialist ceased to be acceptable in polite society and progressive when social democrat too passed beyond the pale? Do any of these terms retain any meaning? And does it matter if they do or they don’t?

My focus here is not the etymology or present understanding of these terms. Nor do I seek a revival in the number of party members describing themselves as socialist (though, like Clause 4, I’m proud to still do so myself).

What I want to explore is the clarity and strength of the Labour party’s mission. Call this socialist or social democrat or what you will; it is its force and lucidity that concerns me, not the name that we attach to it.

Some of the motivations of party members are inevitably not always as pure as might be pretended. Deals are brokered. Backs are scratched. Noses are browned. This is the currency of politics from the branch meeting to the shadow cabinet.

If party conference is, as David Talbot observes, a family gathering, is this a family held together by any more than utilitarian calculi of effort and reward?

We must surely hope that it is. To conflate family and army metaphors, only so many of us can ascend to be generals. But the generals will get nowhere without foot soldiers, who must certainly know that they will never themselves be generals, no matter how many doors they knock on and how many interminable meetings they endure.

If not, then, the promise of advancement, why do the foot soldiers bother?

At some level, we must feel ourselves part of a moral crusade; without which, as Harold Wilson famously said, the Labour Party is nothing. It is perhaps easy to over complicate the nature of this crusade. It may be best simply expressed. A conversational observation picked up by a 16-year-old Siôn Simon does this powerfully:

“If one old lady gets one hot dinner she wouldn’t otherwise have had under Labour, and that was the best we could do, then it was worth it. That’s real Labour politics.”

The best of the Labour party has always been defiantly pragmatic, never allowing the best to be the enemy of the better. One such pragmatist is Denis Healey, who is fond of Leszek Kolakowski’s definition of social democracy:

“An obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy”.

This obstinacy must always be in the DNA of the Labour party. But, as fundamental as this is, it seems short of an animating and compelling mission. While capturing our practical spirit and what we are most opposed to, it does not provide a positive account of what we want to achieve or say anything about how we will achieve it.

As much as the sense of mission of the foot soldiers will probably always be somewhat personalised – my political motivations, for example, have their genesis in the particular circumstances of my upbringing; stifling unemployment around me; a lack of opportunities for those I went to school with contrasting with the privilege of those I went to university with; a sense of obligation to my kith and kin, including the generations before and after mine, to try to build something better – we lack coherence and direction, as a party, if the generals cannot bestow some sense of shared mission.

For this to be the stuff of a moral crusade it must be defined in terms of values. And, as Roy Hattersley once put it, the only ends of socialism are justice and equality. But providing contemporary traction to these timeless values is no easy task in an era of rapid and unpredictable change, economic decline, contested modernity, demographic pressure, and painfully constrained public finances.

As conference approaches, I will be offering some thoughts over a series of blogs for Uncut.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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8 Responses to “The Labour party: why do we bother?”

  1. swatantra says:

    Both Lezek and Hattersley are right.
    But I woud like to see Labour as a more inclusive Party, and not just a Party of the working class and trade unionists. Its a difficult concept for many in the Party to get their heads around, but that would be the essential nature af a Party that claims to be social democratic.

  2. John P Reid says:

    Both Blue labour and Charles Clarkes work with Compass group of getting, Greens , religious groups, non affiliated to Labour, Unions, or Ex lib dems, are ways of getting new people in,
    My view was since 87-2005 i always turned up delivered lots of leaflets ,had street stalls and knocked on doors, to get us in, and had to rely on the mood of the country for it to work, since the 2006 Council election disasters i’ve been running campaigns, i feel we’ve fallen behind with local radio, the Net, postal votes in terms of attracting People, and Flyers are almost worthless now, we’re not going to have a 1997 for along time and trying to appeal to Non Labour areas Is a waste of time,

  3. Craig Alexander Moore says:

    “I woud like to see Labour as a more inclusive Party, and not just a Party of the working class and trade unionists.”

    I do not think the Labour Party has ever been a Party solely of the working classes and trade unionists, it certainly is not now. I believe the challenge currently facing us is getting greater involvement from working classes and trade unionists otherwise the Party will forever be out of touch with its core vote.

  4. Robin Thorpe says:

    Jonathan – good article, from what I have read the Labour leaders that have achieved the most have had a clearly defined mission statement. Of course without winning an election even the most creative manifesto is meaningless.

    Swatantra – I would argue Labour is an inclusive party; the majority of people are working class, whether they identify with this label or not. Workers are those who by “hand or brain” sell their labouring power and whether the work is manual or mental the control manifested in the relationship between employer and employee is still unequal. Whatever people may pscyhologically identify with does not change this economic fact. Labour does not need to change to become a more inclusive party; but perhaps it has to clarify it’s message to emphasise that it represents the interests of the majority. Although social class may not be as prevalent, as an economic class we are being left far behind the top 1%.

  5. themadmullahofbricklane says:

    The reference to Kolokowski has encouraged me to re-read the open letter to him from E.P Thompson in the latter’s 1978 tome ” The Poverty of Theory”.

  6. john reid says:

    never read this website, don’t really agree with the comments after, but this is worth a read,

  7. Mike Homfray says:

    I think that we have a wider problem about party politics full stop. fewer and fewer people want to be involved. I don’t think this is necessarily the ‘fault’ of Labour or any other party, but just that the sort of activities involved in keeping a local party afloat don’t appeal to everyone.

    There are plenty of people still involved in politics, but not necessarily in party politics. Yet the political system still relies on party, particularly in a FPTP system, and there really aren’t any obvious alternatives to party.

  8. Rallan says:

    “I think that we have a wider problem about party politics full stop. fewer and fewer people want to be involved. I don’t think this is necessarily the ‘fault’ of Labour or any other party, but just that the sort of activities involved in keeping a local party afloat don’t appeal to everyone.”

    Heh. It’s just because they’re boring, is it?

    So it’s not that Labour & Conservative parties no longer represent the people in any meaningful sense, and are crewed by incompetent, insincere, two-faced, cynical, hypocritical, corrupt, self-interested professional liars?

    The two main parties have a long track record of general failure and deceit. People vote & donate with increasing reluctance, forced to choose from very poor options (or to simply not bothering). No-one really trusts, respects or believes in your threadbare old party brands any more. You can’t/won’t change – your “professional” political leadership will see to that. A couple more of decades of ever dwindling support, then you’ll be done.

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