by Daniel Charleston-Downes
Just before the Labour party conference in 2013 Ed Miliband was asked when he was going to put socialism back on the agenda of the Labour Party. ‘That’s what we’re doing sir’ was his reply. As we approach the election he has again been asked to defend his record as ‘Red Ed’, being told that the party was still not left wing enough for one supporter. The party is plenty radical enough for Mr Cameron however who described the entire party as a ‘bunch of hypocritical, holier-than-thou, hopeless, sneering socialists’.
To some extent you can ignore Cameron’s quote as an uncharacteristically desperate and overt personal attack on Miliband in response to a surprise poll bump for his party. But there are growing voices in the party, especially when faced with having to defend austerity measures, that are dusting off their berets and bringing their Marxism out of retirement. Already within the Labour party you have Labour Left and Red Labour to name just some factions that draft policy and put pressure on the party to move left. Some of those that feel that the cause is already lost have defected to the Greens or more recently Left Unity.
Labour is still, in at least name, a social democratic party and is affiliated with socialist groups in Europe and the wider international community. Socialism in Britain has always been a little different to its European brother with a tendency to venerate the Lords and the Queen and have a deep respect and even spiritual relationship with the Church. Traditionally, Labour’s greatest and most radical socialists have come from the middle to upper classes, take Tony Benn and Clement Attlee as examples. The Labour party, since it became a large-scale political party, hasn’t always sat easy with the working classes as a true movement for the masses.
There can be no doubt that Labour have moved to the centre since Thatcher changed the rules of the game in the ‘80s. In an attempt to ‘modernise’ there has been a re-evaluation of what should be on offer in a socialist Labour party. Commitments to nationalised projects were abandoned, greater freedoms afforded to the banks and a rolling-back of state interference in the markets was begun. However this paved the way for greater spending in public services, a commitment to the NHS and education as well as greater rights afforded to those that had previously been neglected such as LGBT groups.
If you were to assess Labour’s current policies, there are further mixed messages. One the one hand there is a commitment to raise the minimum wage (introduced by Labour under Blair) and ban zero-hours contracts. On the other are concessions to the fear mongering around immigration and benefits claimants. Miliband appears to have actively pushed aside the Unions and has not vocally supported any strikes, nor has he weighed in heavily to defend the rights of tube workers or anyone else to carry out industrial action. A ‘labour’ party that does not place the defence of labourers at the centre of its agenda has perhaps abandoned some of its roots.
Labour are a party that operate within their means. It is hard to win the argument against massive media monopolies when those same conglomerates, naturally, have such a grip on your ability to speak to the public. It is hard to craft and deliver a dialogue of positive state management when the national railways and the Post Office were such high profile cases of inefficiency. Further challenges are presented when your previous government spent what is perceived to be such unsustainable amounts that it is unable to shake the association with a global financial crisis that it can take little blame for.
Our understanding of socialism has to change. In his book Speak for Britain, Martin Pugh argues that Labour has never been a grass roots movement of the working class but has in fact been a party that has adapted to economic and social circumstances in order to fight for equality and fairness. The redistribution of wealth is a fundamental principle of socialism and it features heavily in Labour’s current manifesto; with increases on tax for the richest and a focus on using those funds to improve the lives and opportunities of the poorest. Labour remains committed to the greatest of national projects, the NHS. Where the market hasn’t provided housing, a Labour government will step in to build. Where the market hasn’t regulated energy prices, a Labour government will step in to reduce costs for the consumer. Labour policy is still crafted from the fundamental belief that it is the state, and not the market, that can best protect the people of Britain.
Labour’s socialism is not perfect. Russell Brand is critical of the ‘scraps’ that Labour offer people and expect them to be grateful for. Ken Loach started a new political project to provide a party of the working class. The most vocal faction of the Green Party continue in their attempts to wrestle absolute control of their party to provide an ‘ecosocialist platform. But all of these alternatives are also immensely fallible. The Green party’s leadership appear to be white, middle-class, privately-educated figures who have a tendency to patronise and alienate. Left Unity provide a platform that is as angry as it is dissolute, crippled by the diversity of opinions and the tenacity with which each faction fills them. Russell Brand, incredibly engaging and intelligent as his criticisms are, comes with no solutions. Labour are still the political movement in the United Kingdom with the will and the means to provide a brand of socialism in British political thought.
Dan Downes is a Labour campaigner, a secondary school teacher and blogs at http://redgrassroots.wordpress.com/