Reconciling Labour past, present and future


by Carl RowlandsLabour rose logo

The leadership election, with competitors currently limping to the start line, is not currently poised to address the existential issues that face the Labour Party. How can we reconcile Labour’s historic commitment to liberty and freedom, with the record of Home Secretaries in the last thirteen years, who have done so much to undermine civil liberties? How can Labour’s historic commitment to public service and social ownership be reconciled with the privatisation and outsourcing, which was conducted at such great cost to the British taxpayer and at such gain for the consultants and contractors? In what way did the Labour government capture that elusive beast, a socialist foreign policy, whilst at the behest of the Bush administration?

There are so many ways for us to get sidetracked. The Labour Party has failed to reinvigorate local government by returning the power to raise local taxation according to local demands. It has failed to create a better context for the trade union movement. It has not succeeded in engaging fully with the European allies at a grassroots level. Despite the best efforts of many, it has failed to convince the public that growth does not arise from austerity and cuts. It has made no popular case that environmental issues should be, first and foremost, regarded as a challenge for business and multinational capitalism. These are all vital aspects for the long-term success of socialism and the Labour Party itself. Labour in office, beyond the initial hopeful realisation of Smith-era promises, can be defined as a failure. It’s a sad story.

In a way, we’ve been here before. The Great Depression struck during Ramsey MacDonald’s lacklustre administration in 1929, and the PLP was left in charge of an economy which was rapidly haemorrhaging. Some of the great statesmen of the time were stuck without room for manoeuvre in minor posts – George Lansbury as Minister for Public Works, Clement Attlee as Postmaster-General and Stafford Cripps as Solicitor General. But an important factor that tends to be lost is that these were not considered great statesmen at the time. Their experience of a Labour government without serious aspirations, drifting into economic orthodoxy, would eventually motivate and galvanise the labour movement to try to do better. And in the first Attlee Government, the relentless wave of legislation set the basis for real social change in British society, which as Tony Judt correctly writes, culminated in the eventual liberation of the 1960s.

In a similar way, but with fresh approaches and policies, Labour will have to do the same. Where the last Labour government shouted success, for example in Sure Start, the next Labour government will have to aim higher, to introduce a comprehensive system of kindergartens from 3-7 years old. This would be the most immediate attack on child poverty and poor circumstances since the Attlee administration.

Where the last Labour government boasted of tax credits, the next Labour government must look at a Citizens Income, and the state as guaranteed employer of last resort, to make the UK a truly full-employment economy. Where the last government boasted of funding for science, the next Labour government needs to go one step further and relate this to a new national infrastructure programme. And to enable this programme, the government needs to be reintroduced as the major shareholder in UK utilities: oil, electricity, gas and water. It’s not as if BP has distinguished itself. The processes and technologies deployed in mineral, oil and gas extraction need continual development, driven by concern for the environment. Only a public service perspective can reconcile the demand for oil and the need to protect our planet.

Whilst the last government had plans for high-speed rail, the next government can save money by renationalising the railway franchises one by one, and putting the money saved into actually developing the existing network. Where the last Labour government sang of being able to bail out the banks, the next one must return these to mutual ownership and provide an ethical basis to every single financial service, making the UK a leader in ethical finance. If we want to provide an ethical basis to our economy, issues surrounding the labour markets will have to be fully addressed. New undergraduates should be normally be rerouted into the voluntary, or ‘third’ sector for the first year or two following their degree. Those who wish to stay there for longer may be able to pay off their debts.

The last Labour government boasted of the minimum wage, the next one will have to curtail the power of agencies and the tendency towards short-term working, in the medium-term interests of developing people’s skills and talents.

From this perspective, the 1997-2010 Government was not a total failure. It was the ‘alpha’ pre-release version of twenty-first socialism. When the next real leadership of our movement eventually emerges, we will see the full development of this. The problem is, looking at the current contest… it might be a long wait.

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