Labour Party Poster, 1935 General Election. Via the British Political Campaign Posters Collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkley.
Labour Party Poster, 1935 General Election. Via the British Political Campaign Posters Collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkley.

Labour’s in a bit of a mess. From parliamentary turmoil to accusations (and now a wider perception) of irresponsible behaviour on social media, the Party is increasingly unable to bring to bear the considerable frustration felt in the country with the inequalities that have arisen as a consequence of austerity. Simply put, they are not making a dent in the Conservative Party’s lead. But they should be ahead. Labour should be ahead in the polls and it isn’t. It should have the confidence that its position tallies with that of the wider British electorate. And it should be able to say – we are a government in waiting, we will lead in the direction that is right for the prosperity of the British people. We not the Conservatives (nor the SNP or whomever) are the party of social justice. We are the party of all, not of a selective special interest (even if that is sometimes large enough to fill town halls).

This malaise is symptomatic of the weakening of social democratic parties right across Europe. Even in former social democratic strongholds like Sweden and Norway, parties of the centre-left face significant challenges. But such weakening of strength is taking place in countries with proportional electoral systems, which means that the Left can scrabble together a coalition of like-minded groups to govern. In Sweden, the Social Democrats govern with the Greens. A decade ago, now, Germany entered a grand coalition between the SPD and the right-wing CDU/CSU – it still has one; but even before that Gerhard Schröder led a SPD-Green coalition. Who of my generation will ever forget the sight of Joschka Fischer telling the Americans, ‘sorry I am not convinced’? But the UK is not like countries on the continent – nor even its neighbour, Ireland – since its parliamentary elections still use the First Past the Post system. As a consequence, our parties are formed of uneasy coalitions that are ill-suited to the nature of twenty-first century politics.

But that is what we have to work with.

It means that the Labour Party has to appeal to the many, not to the few. Back when Clement Attlee was leader of the party, in 1945, individual membership of the Labour Party was less than 500,000. By the time affiliated trades unionists were added into the mix, that figure measured several million. Today, even with the ‘surge’, the Party is nowhere near that large. But the Party was never the electorate. Take 1945 as a prime example. Labour won nearly 12 million votes. The total size of the party was only around half that. When Harold Wilson won in 1964, the party membership was over 830,000, but he won the election with over 12.2 million votes. Without repeating the point ad nauseam, the party is not the electorate. But oh alright, when Tony Blair won in 1997 Labour had a membership of 405,000, and a ‘voterate’ of over 13.5 million. It’s useful to feel validated in your own political activism when you sit in a CLP general committee and it has 100 people present not 15 or 20, but the people in the room are not a normal slice of the population.

In his study of the development of the Labour Party from its split with the Liberals in 1910 (by which time the Miners’ Federation had affiliated) to the first Labour government in 1924, the historian Ross McKibbin reflected that

Socialism as a system was not of major significance either to most Labour voters or to most Labour leaders; but socialism as a rhetoric of political action helped to determine the way in which many of them viewed the world.

Here, I think, is the nub of it. I asked my friends recently, why should I, as someone on the left of the Labour Party, vote for Corbyn. The most any of them could respond was “he’s a socialist”. But Owen Smith would also argue that he is, in terms of temperament and political perspective, a socialist. Neither are necessarily incorrect, since there is not a single identifiable form of socialism in Britain but a commitment to a certain set of ideals and frameworks of operation. Nye Bevan, of course, understood this too. His presentation of the purpose of Democratic Socialism in In Place of Fear is multifaceted and would perhaps meet with some hostility even from the Corbynites today.

The philosophy of Democratic Socialism is essentially cool in temper. It sees society in its context with nature and is conscious of the limitations imposed by physical conditions. It sees the individual in his context with society and is therefore compassionate and tolerant. Because it knows that all political action must be a choice between a number of possible alternatives it eschews all absolute proscriptions and final decisions. Consequently it is not able to offer the thrill of the complete abandonment of private judgement, which is the allure of modern Soviet Communism and of Fascism, its running mate.  Nor can it escape the burden of social choice so attractively suggested by those who believe in laissez-faire obligation to choose among different kinds of social action and in so doing to bear the pains of rejecting what is not practicable or less desirable.

In other words, democratic socialism respects the inevitable compromise between achieving one’s aims and needing to allow the private dissension of those who disagree. Yes, Bevan thought the Tories ‘lower than vermin’ but he too, perhaps under pressure from pro-Soviet fellow travellers, perhaps of his own volition, refused to go along with unilateral nuclear disarmament. It made him enemies on the Left. He dissented from an emerging Left-consensus in his native Wales that devolution was a necessary direction of travel. That too made him enemies on the Left.

I don’t say all of this because I believe in the Blairite cause – I assuredly do not – nor am I on the same part of the Labour spectrum as Owen Smith, for that is not true either. In political instinct I find myself alongside Jeremy Corbyn, even down to being a vegetarian. I don’t believe in Trident; I’m passionately anti-war; I believe in targeted public ownership of utilities and the railways; and share the Left’s social justice position. But as a historian I also recognise that the labour movement and the Labour Party are not the same thing, they are separate. The labour movement, which encompasses the trades unions, the co-operatives, the environmental movement, the peace movement, and the Labour Party, offers three distinct solutions to the implementation of socialism – political, industrial, and mutual. In terms used by old Marxists, it means control of the means of production and control of the means of consumption, and ultimately control of parliament and political power.

As we are currently, I think we’re in danger of jettisoning the political solution – namely the Labour Party – in favour of a movement which cannot win power. Perhaps it does not wish to, at least not in the sense that is meant in the British parliamentary system. Grassroots momentum is all well and good but as Labour discovered in its early years, it’s pretty meaningless if your opponents control where you can gather, how you can gather, and what you can say – if indeed you can say anything at all. Back in 1901, Keir Hardie reflected on this situation in a speech to constituents in Aberdare. The purpose of the speech was to convince them that winning power on local bodies was an important step in building socialism. He began:

I do not think you realise how difficult it is to have Labour represented either on public bodies or in the House of Commons. The big employers of labour are much more afraid of Labour representation on public bodies than they are of trades unionism. The trades union can sometimes fight, but when trades unionism engages in a fight with the employers, you know by sad experience, as I do, what that means. […] And the employers, therefore, whilst they do not like – at least the bulk of them do not – trades unionism, are not so very much afraid of it; but when it comes to Labour representation, it is a different matter.

Sound familiar? Whilst Labour are not in a position of power and influence, governments can impose the bedroom tax, can sanction benefits claimants to their heart’s content, can impose austerity so effectively that even Labour councils find themselves having to close down libraries and nurseries. To be outside power is to always be subjected to it. As Hardie concluded:

I advocate the claims of Labour representation, not only on the grounds I have outlined to you, but also because until the working-class takes its rightful share in the government of the nation, it will always be a subject class, trampled upon by the classes above it. Labour representation has this effect: it develops the self-respect of the working class; it makes them feel that they are a part of the national life and not merely hewers of wood, or of coal, and drawers of waters, but human beings with all the rights of citizenship in their possession. […] If the Labour candidates are not elected, the fault will not be the fault of your employers, will not be the fault of the well-to-do people, but “your own fault alone and exclusively”.

What is going on in the Labour Party at the moment brings to mind a debate that took place time and again after 1910. Those of a certain historical bent will recall the Miners’ Next Step, a document that could easily speak of our own times with its daring critique of political leadership and call for industrial action to replace political action. One of those who believed fully in the syndicalist position of the Miners’ Next Step was the veteran Merthyr Tydfil MP, S. O. Davies. A fervent left-winger, he was expelled from the Labour Party more times than any other Labour MP during his period in parliament, he rebelled frequently, and although he did not sport a beard, he certainly was not liked by the ‘mainstream’ Parliamentary Labour Party. But he was adored by his constituents and frequented causes that were popular with the Labour Left. Remind you of anyone? Back in 1916, speaking to an audience of like-mindeds in Gorseinon, he spoke about contemporary Labour politics:

The rank and file [are] as important as the agents. The attitude in the past had been to hero-worship some of [our] leaders and agents a little too much. [I] should like the spirit of the rank and file to quicken the enthusiasm of the worker. […] No true progress can be made by looking to the agents. Our responsibilities are as precious to us as they are to the agent. The rank and file must see that their class is unshackled.

Swap agent for “MP” and it could be said by Jeremy Corbyn. And so could this continuation:

Workers! The old order must be done away with. Take the tragic condition in […] Europe. You and I can end all this strife; we can make wars cease. If we can kill the jealousy, apathy, etc., that is among the workers, we shall see poverty passing away. Let us have the courage to fight on. Socialism is getting a bit too respectable. A socialist is not branded unless he does some thinking; and so I implore you to commence thinking, then life will be sweet and pure.

“Socialism is getting a bit too respectable” – well, I suppose that wouldn’t quite fit on a gif or become a very successful meme, but think of it this way: Labour’s full of Red Tories. Same meaning. Now, I have a lot of time for S. O. Davies, but his early uncertainty around the primacy of political action does not translate to the twenty-first century. His friend and comrade, Noah Ablett, even went so far as to turn down the offer of the Pembroke Constituency to stand as the Labour candidate there on the grounds that he was only interested in the industrial solution, in the syndicalist way.  Perhaps we’ve reached a post-modern equivalent of the same impasse.

Now I don’t go digging around in Labour’s past lightly, nor do I break with the Left all that easily – in 2010 I gave Diane Abbot my first preference – but just as S. O. Davies was never going to sit on the front bench of the Labour Party, nor get anywhere near the Labour leader’s office, he was never willing to compromise, neither should Jeremy Corbyn. In my last blog I wrote that the Left should support Corbyn, but I was mistaken. The labour movement is at its strongest when the political, the industrial, and the mutual, work in tandem. The Labour Party works at its best when members recognise that they are but a small slither of the total base of support needed to form a Labour government.

And, you know, the Labour Left works best when it is able to be the conscience of the movement, able not to compromise its firm beliefs in peace, social justice, public ownership, and all those other things that make the Left such a vital element in politics.

But the bitter truth is it can’t do that from the leader’s office.