The real Labour tradition

James Lloyd asks whether the Labour Party should look to the right for answers.

After an epoch of presentation-politicians with vacuous clichés, preaching the gospel of the political centre, the Labour Party is trying very hard to escape.  Its chosen Moses is Jeremy Corbyn.  For 21 years the Labour Party has put political gain before principle.  It is now time to change: he may well lead them into the wilderness, but there like the Children of Israel, they will grow stronger.  The party of the left must return to the principles which gave it life and the power to govern in the first place.  Or so the argument goes.

On the other hand, the pragmatists of the party point out you can only change things when you’re in power.  Fine words butter no parsnips, as John Major would say.  The choice is not between capitalism and democratic socialism, but between capitalism without a conscience under the Tories or with one under Labour.

Labour needs to decide what its principles are. The party is split between two choices: either it can combine the providing power of economic liberalism with social liberalism and protection of the vulnerable or it can be a party of the hard left: committed to equality above all things: economic and social. They cannot be both. The debate at the moment is whether a strong economy can give rise to equality or whether equality will give rise to an economy that serves people.  What has made people listen to the left this time seems to be the flag bearers: the pragmatists seem robotic, bland careerists.  The left appear genuine, colourful individualists.

Many will say that the answer to Labour’s question is in its history, its founding principles, its finest years.  They would be right.  But their reasons are probably completely wrong. For a party so proud of its history and in particular of 1945, it is utterly ignorant of its own third way (this is, I accept an unfortunate phrase to use). It does not seem to have dawned on the party that for most of its golden years, it was neither of the two things it now wants to be.

The Attlee government is held up as the exemplar of left wing government. But in many ways, it was on the right of our spectrum today: the tripartite system of education was at its zenith, wages were frozen, defence spending remained high after the war, atomic weapons were acquired, it kept the death penalty and in 1951, welfare spending (excluding health and pensions) was 4.7% of GDP, compared to 6% today.  Many in the Labour Party were social and economic conservatives: patriots, opposing communism, sceptical of the common market and steeped in the rhetoric of the New Jerusalem.

Labour has lost this tradition. None of the leadership contenders understands it, far less represents it.   The Blue Labour movement offers a shimmer of hope, but it may already be too late.  In the party at large, there is little attempt to grasp why UKIP has been so able to win old Labour votes. For much of its life, Labour’s success has been sustained by the small ‘c’ conservative working class: people often repelled by the Tories, but conservative nonetheless.  Some have gone to the Conservatives, some have gone to UKIP.  But they will not find a permanent home in either while they are led by the cosmopolitan Cameron and the libertarian Farage. What is clear is that the Labour Party no longer welcomes them.  The Gillian Duffy incident, among other things made that clear.

Let us imagine for a moment the popular appeal of such a Labour Party. Nationalise the railways. Renationalise the NHS.  Reintroduce a tripartite system of secondary education. Limit immigration. Commit to a looser relationship with the EU, if not outside altogether, allowing more trade and less aid with developing countries. Strengthen the armed forces.  Use the low cost borrowing for large scale capital spending: including housing, energy production and railways, without abandoning austerity:  continuing to limit non-capital spending.  Underlying this would be a communitarian, small c conservative ideology, rather than a marxist or neoliberal one: the purpose of the state would be to put people in a position to secure their own freedom whilst protecting the institutions that serve them from the excesses of the free market.  People forget this also means the European Union, which is committed to economic liberalism: the free movement of all things, which by its nature consumes communities and cultures and allows the strong to thrive at the expense of the weak.

Such a party would be strongly patriotic.  For years, the Labour Party has failed to fight nationalism of different colours because it has avoided patriotism like a drunken uncle.  The only acceptable talk about Britishness is inane: centred on values like “tolerance” and “respect” (as if other countries don’t have these).  There is an embarrassment in anything that singles out Britain as uniquely good or special.  If anyone on the left actually bothered to read Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn, they’d realise they have an alternative to self loathing and embarrassment.  Being proud to be British now seems to be something consenting adults do in private. Compare this to the self confidence and passion of the SNP.  The battle for Britain cannot be won with the head, only with the heart. If Unionists cannot be proud to British, why on earth should the undecided be?

In Wales, this unease has been less damaging, but it is still exists.  Too often it has led to devolution as a concession to nationalists or as a power grab for the Labour Party.  At no point during devolution have we had the debate: how do we ensure the process does not unravel the Union? What institutions need protecting and what powers need to be retained at a national level to keep us together?  Or perhaps, more conservatively, how much of the power devolved is justified by clear and marked economic, social and political differences to England?  Reserving defence and foreign affairs will not cut it. A powerful Assembly is likely to threaten the Union, as the Scottish Parliament has done. This is the sort of thing nationalists understand but don’t want to talk about. The party could even ask then, whether local government is a better vehicle for decentralisation. Given the Scottish problem, this is a question that needs answering fast.

Such a party would be anathema to many, if not most in the Labour Party today, yet it would be truer to the Party’s roots than any of them.  It would in some ways be to the right of the Conservatives but in many ways to the left of the current Labour Party.  It would have the force to appeal simultaneously to middle England, Scotland and Wales.  In that sense, it is a political ideology that can create a truly One Nation movement.

Yet it is clear that the Labour Party does not want to be such a party.  It has forgotten this tradition and now scorns it.  The country is poorer for it.

James Lloyd is an IWA Member.

9 thoughts on “The real Labour tradition

  1. The days when a writer, like Orwell, could write about Britain as England are thankfully long gone. Orwell argues that although Scots don’t feel like Englishmen, ‘ somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European.’ Really? Haven’t we moved on from all this ‘One Nation’ reactionary Unionism where England is Britain (and what about Ireland?) Isn’t it better to build politics on units that people actually identify with? Isn’t Jon Cruddas’ suggestion of an English Labour Party a much more realistic proposition? Wales and Scotland are not likely to be dragged back into ‘England’, still less so Northern Ireland.
    Lets leave the big state nationalism to the right and build a popular, civic nationalism, from the ground up, based on real lived identities not on Imperial dreams of unified states.

    (Orwell’s essay can be found here: http://theorwellprize.co.uk/george-orwell/by-orwell/essays-and-other-works/the-lion-and-the-unicorn-socialism-and-the-english-genius/ )

  2. While we’re going backwards as a cure for all social ills, shall we recriminalise homosexuality while we’re at it? Abortion? If not, why not? And if it’s wrong to backtrack on these, why is it right to backtrack on comprehensive education? A bit of argument would help, and there’s absolutely none here… Perhaps because the author can’t find any.

  3. @ James Lloyd

    Your attempt to hold Britain together is admirable but reminds me of King Canute showing his court the futility of trying to hold the tide back. To anyone who is a Unionist, the best option available is that of a federal UK as that is the direction in which events are heading. However your point about the gap between the leadership of a metropolitan Westminster Labour Party and traditional working class voters is well made. Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in stepping into that gap and filling it. I have to confess that I don’t know whether the same can be said for the Labour Party in Wales, the election results suggest otherwise, but it is certainly the case that both the Conservatives and UKIP are both knocking on that particular door. Current polls suggest that Labour is going to need a coalition party next May which in turn suggests that inroads are being made into their vote. I believe that Carwyn Jones understands this as is demonstrated by his call for the Labour Party to develop its own identity.

    However I disagree with Russell Elliot’s assertion of leaving big state nationalism to the right. In terms of the UK, the right has already abandoned it. The Conservative Party in the face of the SNP triumph has reverted to being the ‘natural party’ of England. England after all was built on Conservative principles and values. Labour never really challenged this but instead sought to build a Britain built on Labour values which in part it succeeded in doing, NHS, welfare state etc. However Britain is now being torn apart and Britain has collapsed underneath them, taking the party with it in both Scotland and to a lesser extent England. England of course needs a big state on account of being a big nation with a population of 53 million. Scotland it would appear has opted for the smaller version because it is easier to identlify with and feel involved in it.

    Culture has a way of following in the wake of political events but Britain as we have known it is now dead and there is no way of resurrecting that particular corpse.

  4. As long as Welsh Nationalists continue to define Wales in terms of “Language and Culture” Wales will remain safely part of Britain….or the rump of Britain. I suspect that Plaid is about to lurch back to its North West and Western fringe roots under the impetus of Dr Simon Brooks’ return to the fold in Gwynedd and thus signal the death knell to attempts to “take the Valleys”.

    Labour will be desperate to find a coalition partner after the Assembly elections but the resurgence of the Cultural Conservatives in Plaid may put an end to any chance of a full coalition in that direction. It is always seen as a Nationalist rallying cry when someone sarcastically says “for Wales see England” but analysis of polls and surveys shows that Wales pretty well thinks like England….hence the rise of a Unionist party of the illiberal Right like UKIP.

  5. James Lloyd is being a little provocative, but he does say some significant things about what the electorate might be thinking, and given the lack of leadership this tale is likely to wag the political dog in the forthcoming election, to some extent. We ignore it at our peril.

    It’s interesting that there is such a lack of reaction here, but I guess it reflects the knife edge upon which political discourse in Wales rests. There is often a clear understanding of the issues involved, and what needs to be done, but it all gets compromised by fear of the reaction of the British establishment (whether party, government or Imperial – all the same cancerous thing essentially). We’re always looking over our shoulder.

    It’s been this way for generations. It isn’t a recent thing. Its a question of confidence, and these days there’s no excuse for it. The outcome of the Labour leadership election will eventually be seen only in this way, and James Lloyd is being honest about it. Jeremy Corbyn is quite close, in many ways, to the mainstream in Wales, but you wouldn’t think it. All I can hear is the loud and persistent ‘ssssshhh’ from more enlightened politicians, in case ‘they’ can hear us saying something different.

    Worrawe like?

  6. Most sense I’ve seen on Click for quite some time but it misses the point that Labour are in danger of becoming irrelevant whether they lurch left or right.

    If they lurch left and remain in power the UK, or the FUK as it is rapidly becoming, will plunge to Spanish, Italian, Greek, then Cuban levels… Economically, of course, Wales is already in a worse state than almost all of them so you could say Llafur has already embraced ‘Corbynomics’.

    If they lurch right then that means they bump into and jump-over the pink not-the-Conservative Party which is already so far left it has alienated a fair chunk of the middle class and white van men. And this is where Labour’s problems really kick in because the average British working man (white or blue collar) is, as the article suggests, a patriotic conservative who believes in an independent Britain outside the EU, in working for a living and paying a fair amount of tax, and in looking after the old, the sick, and the genuinely needy. These are people who do not want £13bn spending on foreign aid because charity begins at home. These are people who do not want unlimited immigration. These are people who mostly understand that the EU cannot be made to work and /or that renegotiation of the acquis won’t happen. These are also people who understand that money has to be earned before it can be spent – or there has to be a realistic probability of repaying money that is borrowed.

    Corbyn’s Labour appeals to a few intellectuals who can usually afford the luxury of paying high taxes and to the feckless. Cameron’s anti-British not-the-Tories seem to appeal to fewer and fewer but it’s marginally better than Labour in its current guise and about the same as Labour would be under Liz Kendall. I don’t immediately know how to choose between Blue Labour and the Red Tories? Looks like Hobson’s choice to me!

    Fortunately, there is now UKIP which offers just enough to the patriotic conservative blue collar workers and the patriotic conservative white collar workers… The only thing keeping them out of the HoC is our FPTP voting system. By 2020 even that may not keep the Red Tories or Blue Labour in power. Maybe they would have to go into coalition since they are so much alike?

    And as J. Jones points out above, Plaid are also making themselves irrelevant as Llafur and the anti-British Tories steal their ground. It does, indeed, look as if Plaid is retreating to its heartland in the hope that it can cling onto Gwynedd and other odd bits of the Fro for a little bit longer… But Llafur got that wrong too ‘cos more and more in the Fro are also turning to UKIP… In fact, the natives are getting restless which ever language they speak!

  7. James,

    Rule Britannia – let’s make Britain great again, we will forever rule the waves and be that proud Jerusalem singing, chest thumping nation of scholars, patriots and heroes.

    Do not cease from mental fight and fire up our chariots of fire. Stiffen those upper lips and go once more unto the breach. Let’s fix the injustices of this world by kindly sharing again our values and culture. Let’s make this world appreciate the meaning of culture and be civilised once again. We are a people forged from strong Victorian values; envied all over the world for our overwhelming sense of decency.

    We are a polite and reserved nation of high-tea supping, scone and Devon cream munching patriots. We are a people who ruled the world and allowed it to experience the beauties of Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Wordsworth and Turner, to name but a few. We won the world cup in 1966, with the best football team the world has ever seen, we hosted the best Olympics ever in 2012, and even the Chinese admitted it was much better than theirs.

    The union is not at risk, we may have devolved some powers to little administrations, but don’t be fooled, this is only for polite appeasement – they only have the powers of parish councils after all. At least, this means there won’t be any more unrest and unlike our greatest ever Briton, Winston Churchill, we won’t have to consider sending the troops down west any time soon to open fire on uncouth rioters in the valleys. We are a nation not to be trifled with. We scuppered the Spanish Armada, smashed the rebellious Scots and defeated Napoleon. We educated the tribal, pagan Welsh, with their moribund language and non conformist practices and set them on a path away from their wicked, ignorant, lazy, immoral ways.

    Time to stand-up and be proud to be British. Let’s wear our hearts on our sleeves and be proud of all the great things we have done , all the cultures we have destroyed and all the people we have robbed. St George would be very proud indeed.

  8. Once again the civil war between left and right continues to hold this country back. So lets face some real world facts to help us decide. The only thing holding the eu back from real prosperity and it always will do is the eu itself and the euro. They are both the concepts of political minds of carreerist politicians all living very well off the gravy train and the uk has done well to stay out of a lot of it. The eu failure to thrive is reflected inthe consitituant countries that make it up. The real big economies bond markets should tell you everything. The german bonds are trading in the negative by up to 79%, the other big economies such as france and italy are in a similar position. The uk bond market is trading at a negative of 29% not great but well over half the others. Britains main trade is outside the eu and principaly in Commonwealth countries who surprisingly offer the best real future for the uk. The Commonwealth gdp combined is bigger than china, it has over 20 of the fastest growing economies of the world, it has all the worlds resources that economies need and the vast majority of the population is under 25 years old. Wales and Scotland and Ireland and England are part of this story now. But on a global scale the Commonwealth is fast becoming a real role model for the world as an alternative to American, Russian or Chinese values. Fascinatingly none of the 53 countries want to leave the commonwealth only wales and scotland want to do that. It took some 500 years of history to create this commonwealth which is the outcome of empire a very liberal empire that has a huge legacy in the world that still attracts many. The time for the Commonwealth to take a big step to the major stage is here and now massive prosperity and peace can come about in the world under its aegis lets not waste this legacy of empire that is the united world of nations from the poorest to the richest all working in common together to make this a better world. Put all this homespun petty tribalism away for the sake of your childrens future. The eu is dead long live the Commonwealth of 53 nations whose future is greater thanits past.

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