Is socialism still at the heart of the Labour party?

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 

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6 Responses to “Is socialism still at the heart of the Labour party?”

  1. Tafia says:

    Is socialism still at the heart of the Labour party?

    Not since 1976 & the IMF. From then until Blair it pretended to be to varying degrees but once he took over all pretence went straight in the bin.

  2. Madasafish says:

    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.

    Well that may be true but you could argue the state – and state owned organisations- have failed miserably to protect teh people.

    After all look at the following fiascos where people were harmed or killed in their hundreds and the state run organisations responsible either did nothing or actively hampered the investigations into them.
    In no particular order:
    Hillsborough 96 dead, 766 injured. Three enquiries over 35 years to discover the police were responsible.
    Mid Staffs Hospital : up to 1200 deaths and 5 enquiries. Secretary of State for Health at the time refused a public enquiry
    Bristol Hospital: 29 children died due to faulty heart surgery which continued for four years. Warning advice was deliberately ignored.
    Furness Genaral Hospital : 9 baby deaths and 8 cases of cerebral palsy : complaints to hospital and Ombusman (twice) were rejected.
    Predatory Phone calling despite being on the Telephone Preference Service: the TPS were basically inept and did nothing .Complaints ignored by MPs.

    If any of the above were private companies, there would be a number of directors in jail for medical negligence, manslaughter etc.. No-one has been jailed – as far as I am aware – from the above listed

    Still think the state does a good job?

  3. John Reid says:

    Depends what defines socialism, was the 83 manifesto scrapping half the police and leaving nato, socialist, and the 1976 IMF deal was needed after we’d spent all the money the country had planned for the nests 10 years, in two, remember the play GBH about militant, Asa Michael Palins character says to them at the end what they were doing intimidating teachers who were trying to teach kids, who weren’t on strike, ‘it was nothing to do with socialism at all’ as they got off, the Militant members turned to each other ,and spoke it Home Counties accents

    Madasafish, Hildborough was 26 years ago, and the inquiry to decide what happened ,hasn’t come out yet, surely the afA for picking the ground, when they knew it wasn’t big i enough in the first place must have something to do with it, recall when G4s were responsible for death via cutting corners

  4. BenM says:


    The police opened the gates – the privately owned club erected the fence and didn’t have a current safety certificate.

    The Mid Staffs enquiry did NOT prove there were 1200 deaths. Go read the Francis enquiry.

    Heart surgery on babies is inherently risky and the infants mortally ill. Without a health service they would have died anyway. The NHS gives them a fighting chance without crippling their parents financially.

    You forget conveniently in the days before an acivitist state the hunger, ignorance, squalor, poverty, limited life chances of millions of people – the whacking great big picture in other words.

    “Still think the state does a good job?”

    Absolutely, yes.

  5. Robert says:

    The state is fine but the issue is getting politician to think so, being disabled the state is so very important for me, sadly labour decided ATOS a private firm with UNUM Provident was the answer.

    Yes the state is very important, but the question is these day is labour.

  6. …greater freedoms afforded to the banks and a rolling-back of state interference in the markets was begun.

    That went well, didn’t it?

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