What is the Labour Party for?



This is the question that sits under the debate that has refused to be quelled even by the incredibly decisive vote in the leadership contest. It transcends individual policies – though they are frequently a proxy for it (for example welfare reform and the replacement of Trident). It is a question with no single easy answer which is why it will continue to be the question we struggle with throughout our time in the Party.

Clause IV – the writing on the back of our membership cards – is what defines our ultimate purpose.

Since 1995 this has read:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

This, of course, changed from the old text:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

There are many who believe we should return to the latter, but to do so would not be unproblematic. It is not – for example – necessarily a commitment to the nationalisation of industries that many would like to see. The “best obtainable system” is contentious even on the left where statists and co-operators may well disagree on how best to secure that most equitable distribution. And what about the participation of those who are not workers? The retired, the sick, the unemployed?

The former too though has it’s faults. It doesn’t really say much about what Labour would do other than we’d do it together. I am a strong believer in collectivism but I think it needs to have a greater and more focused purpose.

The point is not to argue about which of these is right, but to highlight that this debate is more complex than a couple of sentences (or a 700 word blog) can ever really do justice to. As so many new members join our Party, they will bring with them new ideas and energy about what we can and should do and what we can and should be. We must harness these into a wider movement that challenges ourselves, challenges the Tories and changes the country.

The Labour Party exists to be elected. It’s the role of parties in a democracy. But all too often we have allowed “electability” to become not our route to change but our final goal. Equally, we are in danger of losing sight of the fact that if we aren’t elected we can change very little. the obvious need for “strong opposition” – so vital to the turnaround experienced by Corbyn’s campaign after the Welfare Reform vote is clear. We must oppose this government and the appalling things they are doing in so many areas of our public life.

But alongside this opposition, we must be building a strong, coherent story of what Labour wants to change and how it will do that. We cannot simply be about what we won’t do, but what we will do differently. If we don’t have a believable, credible story of how – even under difficult financial circumstances (and no one who has paid the slightest bit of attention to Osborne’s record can be in any doubt that any government we inherit will still face these) – we can transform lives and communities, we simply won’t be elected to get the chance to do so.

Labour – electable with a purpose. It’s a good slogan, but the harsh reality is at present it is no more than that. What is the next sentence? What is that purpose? What are our collective goals and how will we achieve them? Why have we failed twice to convince the country we were the right choice and how do we do so now?

I hate Labour being in opposition. I see the effect of our not being in government blighting my community every day. I see life getting harsher for those Labour is there to serve and I know we need to do better. But now we as a Party have to agree – collectively – what that better is and what it looks like.

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