History lessons for Starmer’s Labour?

Bryn Jones looks at two recent publications which indicate today’s centre-left histories need to widen their lens on past Labour radicalism, from Attlee through Wilson to Corbyn

Keir Starmer’s accession as Labour leader was heralded as a fresh start, preserving the best of the Corbyn era but recovering the power-winning focus of Blairism. There has, instead, been a return to the New Labour style of central dictation of ‘the party line’ and a pro-business and media-friendly rhetoric. Yet, despite dropping or deep-freezing his ten pledges – to the disappointment of both left and right in and around the party – there is little of the flair or eye-catching policies of early New Labour. These books provide a glimpse of how centre-left commentators view past Labour highs and lows that might be relevant to the present regime. Can these diverse histories answer the dominant complaint about Starmer’s Labour and show what Labour should actually stand for?      

For shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves in her foreword to Nathan Yeowell’s collection, we can learn from 1945, 1964 and 1997 “how Labour leaders brought the party back into power”. For Reeves, the flipside – historic electoral failures – occur when Labour lacked a “deep understanding of how society has changed, the big economic challenges… and what people want from their lives”. However, few of Yeowell’s contributors examine the changing external socio-economic factors and demands that shaped Labour’s politics and policies since its fall in 2010. They focus mainly on party screenplays: its dominant ideas, policies and personalities. Blair, Crosland, Kinnock, Wilson – each has his own chapter. A crucial weakness is the near exclusion of the upsurge of radical socialist ideas from 2016. The editor’s introduction admits the collection omits big and recent politico-economic forces like Corbynism, trade unions and Brexit, but argues that such developments are too recent to permit proper analysis. More critically, none ask how Labour could use government powers to curb the hostile forces of City finance, business and mass media hostility, and Conservative breeding grounds in the public schools. Some acknowledge both the Attlee government’s neglect of these and Wilson’s spasmodic attempts to tackle them. Arguably, Blair made common cause with them – which leads Diamond to say that Labour invariably seeks to govern through the existing centralised state, rather than reforming it.

Moreover, the recent Forde report confirms another crucial omission: Labour’s dysfunctional internal democracy. This underlies the structural conflicts that repeatedly pit membership movements for ‘voice’ and recognition against the leader’s command centre and the general secretary’s bureaucratic power to discipline and punish. Some contributions cover these dynamics. Bunce and Linton’s chapter, on the ‘Story of Black Sections’, shows how the party establishment bitterly resisted Black representation. The refreshing history of local politics and successive feminist movements by Kirsta Cowman reports another dimension of wider movements becoming engaged in intra-party struggles. Similar frictions, over the politics of community engagement, are narrated in Nick Garland’s chapter. He suggests the history of competing right vs left attempts to ‘own’ community identities and issues illustrates the failure of state-centric, top-down social democrats to “engage seriously with the ideas, though not necessarily precise policies, underpinning the left’s strategy”. This was “a missed opportunity to find common ground [which]… contributed to their political marginalisation”. This refusal continues under Starmer. His new adviser, Deborah Mattinson, previously documented the centrality of local communities to lost Red Wall voters. Yet Starmer closed the community organising unit set up by Corbyn.

Diamond’s book, like Jeremy Nuttall’s piece in Yeowell’s, gives the Blair regime qualified approval for Blair’s electoral nous and willingness to milk market cows to nourish public spending. However, Nuttall goes further, arguing that the key to recreating such past success – Reeves’s “what people want from their lives” – is to update Blair’s focus on their “aspirations”. Elections are said to be won by satisfying “aspirational” voters who want affluent lifestyles and to get on in the world. A sceptic might add that if such an emphasis did win votes, it was also accompanied, after 1997, by a continuous decline in support from Labour’s working-class base. Aspirational social mobility seems to have had limited appeal to them. Since the 2008 financial crash, austerity and now poverty-inducing inflation are intensifying a crisis that might make many voters more likely to ‘aspire’ to reliable public and health services, decent civic infrastructures, more affordable energy bills and fairer employers.

Since its linked rise with trade unionism, Labour has usually been the electoral conduit for social movements. Jackson’s chapter interprets this as the need now to combine social and environmental justice campaigns with the populism of ‘place and nation’. Unfortunately, the Corbyn upsurge apart, it is the institutions and ideologies of globalisation and neoliberalism that have most influenced recent party perspectives, discussion of which Yeowell’s contributors largely avoid. Diamond considers New Labour’s record here, but claims it “hardly amounted to collusion with neoliberalism”. Yet he admits that New Labour’s attempt to moderate rising social inequality by improving the social mobility of individuals meant turning higher education into a market in which “the burden of paying” was shifted onto individuals. He also complains that New Labour replaced Old Labour’s top-down statism with equally centralised managerialism. Contra Reeves’s assertion, he describes “technocratic problem solvers” replacing “crusaders for moral values”.

From his experiences as senior policy adviser to Tony Blair and later as head of policy planning, Diamond denounces that government’s “painfully slow progress” and its refusal “to define a bold social democratic agenda”. This is exemplified by the leadership’s dismissal of the idea of ‘stakeholding’ reforms to business governance: proposals championed in the late 1990s by, amongst others, a young policy wonk called Ed Miliband. Unlike the 1930s, complains Diamond, as the New Labour paradigm disintegrated with the 2008 financial crash, “no compelling ideological position was forthcoming from the British centre-left”. If so, what of the more recent paradigms of the wider left, including the Corbyn-McDonnell versions of stakeholding: making key businesses more accountable and removing them from the grip of global finance? 

Unlike Yeowell’s agenda, Diamond dutifully devotes 31 pages to the renaissance of left and anti-neoliberal ideas, tepidly under Ed Miliband, and then full throttle under Corbyn, though he concludes weakly. The 2019 disaster was dictated, allegedly, not by intra-party subversion by its right wing, nor by the disastrous Starmer-backed anti-Brexit line (treated as merely symptoms of incoherence), nor by a blanket media assault, nor even by Corbyn’s poor campaign strategies. Rather, the cause is ascribed to a failure to recognise the worldwide “alterations in capitalism, class and representative democracy that has disabled most left parties” – a statement some might read as a justification of Blair’s self-professed deference to the inexorable ‘tides’ of (neoliberal) globalisation, forces that, according to Blair, preclude transformative reforms. Diamond’s ambivalence on Blairism may stem partly from his interviews, almost exclusively from great and good New Labour figures: Adonis, Birt, Blunkett, Clarke, Mandelson, etc. Useful, but surely one-sided? 

Several Corbynist policies were innovative and ingredients for a new paradigm, not merely Old Labour nostalgia nor an idealisation of ‘1945’. But their electoral eclipse in 2019 seems to taboo such recognition. Stephen Fielding’s chapter on changing perceptions of ‘1945’ roundly dismisses Corbynite ideas as blindly mythologising the Attlee government. By romanticising its achievements, Ken Loach’s “visceral” film, The Spirit of 1945, is said to have concealed Corbynism’s flaws. For Fielding, the 2019 manifesto was over-extravagant: “even more radical” than that of 1945. Really? Can Corbyn’s promises of partial renationalisation of energy, railways and Royal Mail (less than 3% of UK GDP), de-privatising some NHS services, and a new National Care Service (now orthodox Scottish and Welsh government policy) be regarded as more radical than the ‘45 policies? These included wholesale nationalisation of the then core industries of iron and steel, rail, coal and electricity, and the creation, from scratch, of the NHS. Diamond’s cautious but more meticulous chronicle apart, several of these centre-left analyses seem as blinkered as the clichés of ‘hard left’/’far left’ politics that they dismiss. Faced with an imploding global economy and resurgent extreme nationalism, such histories might do better to widen their lens and ask: how has Labour lost the capacity to exploit electorally the intensifying trends towards financial power, impoverishment, and ecological chaos? Closer study of the ’45 and Wilson governments might help. By working through establishment institutions, they achieved some empowerment of workers and socialisation of industries and health services in the teeth of business and establishment opposition. Please copy Sir Keir into any findings. 

The British Labour Party in Opposition and Power 1979-2019
by Patrick Diamond
Routledge, 2021
Rethinking Labour’s Past
edited by Nathan Yeowell
I.B. Tauris, 2022

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