A Turbulent Story

Jon Cruddas - credit: Chris McAndrew \ WikiMedia CC

Jon Cruddas reflects on the 100th anniversary of the first Labour government

Labour’s history is sprawling and complex, filled with extraordinary highs and epic lows. As we mark the centenary of the first Labour government it is worth re-exploring this history to reconsider the present. There have been six periods of Labour government. The first two, in 1924 and between 1929 and 1931, were minority administrations. Three times, between 1950 and 1951, 1964 and 1966, and October 1974 and 1977, Labour held small single-figure majorities, with the 1970s government eventually slipping into a third minority administration. Labour has won five major majorities – in 1945, 1966, and three under New Labour. Yet once defeated it has often been out of office for long periods – 14 years after 1931, 13 after 1951, 18 following 1979 and today approaching 14 years. There have been 23 Labour leaders, if you include acting leaders Herbert Morrison, George Brown, Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman. Only six have become Prime Minister. Only three, Attlee, Wilson, and Blair, have won a majority at a General Election. If Keir Starmer becomes the fourth it will be an historic achievement.

Despite a record that includes the introduction of a welfare state, the National Health Service and waves of equalities legislation – excluding wartime coalitions – Labour has only held power for a total of just 33 years. Labour’s history includes some occasional, compelling victories. In 1945 it successfully defined the Tories as the party of the past, of mass unemployment and appeasement. In the 1960s Harold Wilson offered the prospect of technological modernity. Blair talked of building a New Britain after the decline, drift and sleaze of the Major years.

More often it is a story of defeat. Even today the disaster of 1931 still haunts the party after MacDonald, Thomas and Snowden entered the National Government. The rejection of a tired Attlee administration in 1951 still pains given the extraordinary achievements of that government. Thatcher’s ascendancy in 1979 and Labour’s threatened eclipse by the SDP, scarred the party at large and a generation of its leaders. There was little in the way of intellectual and political reckoning following the New Labour years and 2010 defeat, replaced with bouts of wretched factionalism and 14 years of isolation.

Labour in Office

The record of past Labour governments is mixed. The primary achievement of the first 1924 minority administration was to demonstrate that the party was fit to govern. It made a significant intervention over housing policy, managed the effects of the “Geddes Axe” and introduced some minor social security reforms. The 1929 election saw Labour emerge for the first time as the largest party, but looking back it was an unfortunate election to win. By the summer of 1931 the government was consumed by a political and financial crisis that ended disastrously, with the party collapsing from 287 MPs to just 52. Yet these seismic events did not destroy the party. The resilience of Labour’s class base ensured that by 1935 it had re-established a relatively healthy position amongst the electorate. The 1945-51 Labour Government established the political settlement that defined much of the 20th century with the creation of the welfare state, Attlee’s British New Deal, and socialised medicine.

The 11 years that Labour held office between 1964 and 1979 are more difficult to assess. The 1964-70 government embarked on what would become a half-century of pioneering Labour equalities legislation culminating in the 2010 Equality Act. It also sought to build a modern growth agenda to resolve emerging challenges of comparative productive capacity that remain unresolved today. Yet it would be forced to retreat, concede defeat, embrace austerity and buckle under international pressure and a failure to achieve domestic labour law reforms. The 1974-79 government is generally considered a failure. Yet given the challenges that confronted it the administration achieved a great deal and skilfully survived a series of economic and industrial storms. By late 1978 it might well have been re-elected.

Controversy also surrounds the 1997-2010 government. The Good Friday Agreement remains an extraordinary achievement. The government’s early record as a liberal reforming administration endures in terms of devolution, equalities, and human rights reform. Its successes in health and education are often overlooked, although its housing policies were disappointing. Labour’s record in recycling a growth dividend to rebuild public services and secure distributive justice was for a decade unparalleled. Yet much of it unravelled due to Labour’s own culpability in helping create the conditions that led to a financial crisis, recession, and austerity. Above all the government lost trust and moral purpose following the invasion of Iraq and after that became increasingly illiberal. Despite significant achievements, when set against Blair’s 1997 Conference pledge to lead “one of the great reforming governments in British history” and the benefits of a decade of growth, it is difficult not to conclude that it amounted to a missed opportunity.

Does Labour Own Its Own History

Sunday 27th February 2000 marked the centenary of the Labour Representation Committee. Yet the Blair government made more of a Greenwich monument to the new millennium than honour the party’s creation. That Sunday Tony Blair penned a short, muted valedictory article for BBC News Online. Whilst lauding a century of achievement and “many of the greatest social advances of the last 100 years” he lamented being out of power “too often and for too long”. He swiftly fell back on a familiar New Labour script about enduring values – traditional yet applied in modern ways – alongside a list of policies “demonstrating that enterprise and fairness go hand in hand”. An underwhelming verdict on the epic history of the party he led.

Nearly a quarter century later it is difficult to find much trace of this landmark moment in the history of British socialism. A few months earlier at the 1999 Conference the party held an anniversary exhibition, including a display of Keir Hardie’s miner’s lamp and cap. To close the conference General Secretary Tom Sawyer dressed up as Hardie. That was about it, apart from an Early Day Motion 367 to mark the event which attracted just 85 signatories. In the past Labour was more confident about its history. For the 1925 LRC Silver Jubilee, party official Herbert Tracey edited a three volume 1000 page history and did the same for the Golden Anniversary. Also, in 1950 long standing Party National Agent George Shepherd penned Labour’s Early Days. To commemorate the Golden Jubilee of the PLP in 1956, the party published Voice of the People.

No such materials were printed to mark the 2000 centenary. It was left to academics rather than party officials. Although to correct this omission Alan Haworth and Dianne Hayter later jointly edited a centenary book to commemorate the 1906 election and the 29 men that formed the first Labour group in Westminster, with a forward from Blair. Generally, however since the 1950s Labour has displayed an uncomfortable relationship with its history. This January Labour and Keir Starmer did little to celebrate the centenary of 1924. Why?

Origin, Death and Purpose

Certain questions reappear throughout Labour history. First The Origin Question – was a party of the organised working class always going to rise and crowd out the Liberal Party in the first quarter of the last century? Second, from the early 1950s The Death Question – was the party just painting over the cracks and managing its decline? Or as Hobsbawm later wrote, was the forward march of Labour halted? These two questions bookend labour history and capture significant intellectual forces. In the early decades marxism, utopianism, various religious traditions, eugenics, positivism, all shared a view that  history unfolds. This built for the leadership a belief in the inevitability of gradualism – thatsocialism was a given and informed the optimistic ways that Labour celebrated its history and centenaries.

Such hope and optimism turned to fatalism in the 50s and fed bouts of party revisionism culminating in the advance of New Labour in the 1990s which shared an assumption that the party was on the wrong side of history. In both periods an inevitability was attached to Labour’s rise and falllinked to class composition and the changing nature of British capitalism. But is there a different way of looking at this by focusing on a third question, the purpose question, of what is Labour for?

Labour and Justice

In the 1890s the idea of “socialist unity” was rejected by Keir Hardie in favour of a broad-based alliance to promote labour causes. From its creation the LRC was a coalition of different organizations and philosophies.  Throughout history Labour has remained a party without a formal ideology, identity, or creed. As a consequence, Labour’s history can be understood in terms of how different political philosophies regarding how society should be organised – theories of justice – have shaped the party’s story. Three such theories demarcate Labour’s history.

The first is concerned with maximizing human welfare and is primarily focused on distributional justice, of who gets what; the allocation of economic resources and material equality. Although often associated with the Fabian tradition this economistic or distributional tradition has generally dominated Labour history across both its left and right flanks.The second approach is concerned with maximising human freedom and often references the contribution of the Diggers, Levellers and Chartists when making the case for modern democratic and constitutional renewal. Such thinking informed post-war concerns for human rights following the experience of fascism and genocide as well as layers of equalities legislation enacted by successive Labour governments from Roy Jenkins in the 1960s through to the Equality Act of 2010. The third approach, sometimes termed ethical socialism, seeks to maximise the human virtues that might characterise a just society and the policy and institutional arrangements that enable citizens to live good lives and flourish. This tradition has informed debates on working class self-improvement, civic renewal, and citizenship. In economic terms its influence can be detected in the tradition of Guild Socialism, debates around workers control, economic democracy and stakeholding. All three approaches form valuable and indispensable parts of the Labour tradition.

Rethinking Labour History

The party has prospered when it combines these three approaches – as notably under the Attlee government, the brief leadership of John Smith and the first term of the Blair government. History demonstrates that Labour can weave together a story of national renewal, one equipped with moral purpose that can rebuild civic virtue, enhance human rights and advance equality. Yet this requires a culture of pluralism and internal generosity. Too often one has tended to factionally dominate – on both the left and right – the statist, labourist tradition of distributional justice.

Starmer and the Modern Labour Party

All Labour leaders have tended to work their way up through the party and be linked with assorted factions, ideas and intellectual traditions. All apart from one, Keir Starmer. Entering politics late he has risen to the top with great speed. He has used this to great effect. He is agile. He is not trapped by history, factional association, or tradition, reflected in the distance travelled from the pledges he made to the party when seeking to be elected. Yet it embeds an elusive, detached qualityto his leadership in terms of any vision of a just society. In recent months Starmer, with distinct echoes of Wilson, has sought to focus on a muscular industrial strategy and a new deal for working people. Yet rather than attempt to draw from and reconcile Labour’s traditions of justice modern Labour appears content to offer a specific yet diminishing economic strategy to deliver change. It might suffice to win an election but how will it reorder society? What is the purpose of Labour?

Labour’s history suggests that to be successful in power Starmer will be required to embrace wider intellectual traditions within Labour history and build a deeper story of freedom and democratic renewal, of human flourishing and what constitutes a good society. We shall see how this story unfolds.

Jon Cruddas new book “A Century Of Labour” published by @politybooks. Get 20% off for a limited time using code LAB20.


  1. Despite the obvious failing of Tory policies, it is odd how rarely Labour actually gets to grips with major policy areas such as Education, Health, Employment and Housing and focuses on what can and must be fixed and what measures are necessary in a first Labour term.
    Caught so often between waffle and dogma, we let a bunch of doubters – academics and Owen Jones/George Monbiot-style”journalists” – worry away at our sense of purpose.
    The eternal caravan of MPs and wannabes parading from one policy area to the next without ever touching down means few go into Government with a plan to bring about tangible change.
    I very much hope Keir Starmer has a firm grip on the collars of those who seem to want power but have so little idea what they want to do with it.
    And pray no one asks what our Defence policy might be!

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