A leading thinker in the labour movement has warned that the party’s coalition of support is at risk of “splitting” over concerns on immigration and identity.
Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, used an event marking the legacy of Tony Crosland, the late Labour foreign secretary, to highlight the risk posed to Labour if it did not respond to supporters’ concerns in the aftermath of the EU referendum.
About a third of Labour voters backed Leave despite a series of plea from MPs and unions on the left and centre-left.
Katwala said Crosland – who died suddenly aged just 58 in 1977 – would recognise today’s Labour Party, “especially its left-wing, which is having quite a 1977 moment.”
Crosland lived in an era when questions of patriotism and identity were more straightforward, Katwala said at the event, hosted by Policy Network, the Mile End Institute and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies.
“He didn’t have much to say about national identity. I think he was part of that pre-1968 Labour generation that was straightforwardly unproblematically patriotic, but that wasn’t a big part of the politics at the time. I think the left’s anxieties about national identity came a bit later,” Katwala said.
“Immigration was at the centre of the national debate – with the 1968 speech of Enoch Powell and Roy Jenkins on multiculturalism. Crosland didn’t get heavily involved in those debates. Today, issues of immigration and identity risk splitting Labour’s electoral coalition apart, by place and class. But I wonder if his sense of connection with Grimsby would have made him more empathetic to feeling torn by that debate – to seeing value in the cultural confidence of the university towns but having some understanding of why that wasn’t shared by the worldview of those who feel rooted in Grimsby.”
“I don’t think you would find much in Crosland’s writing to navigate that challenge. His instincts were liberal but I think his experience of Grimsby might have been resistant to the idea of having to pick a side by declaring it a choice between ‘open versus closed’ before exploring whether there was any chance of finding the common ground.”
“In 1956, Crosland was making the social democratic case for more social liberalism against grey statist Fabianism. He wins that argument. We are a much more educated and much more liberal society. But that liberalism now faces challenges that Crosland’s post-war social democracy didn’t anticipate or address, especially on the identity cleavages in politics around identity, immigration and integration.”
“Europe was a great cause of the Croslandites – but without Crosland. He was agnostic about Europe. He said the voters of Grimsby didn’t care about it. By 2016, they cared about it quite a lot. There was a 70 per cent leave vote there. So Crosland’s heresy on Europe looks rather prescient now, but Brexit does remove one of the foundations of post-war social democracy.”
Contemporaries of Crosland debated whether he would have become leader had he not died after a stroke. Dick Leonard, former Labour MP, said he suspected he would have but Lord Lipsey, former political adviser to Crosland, disagreed – saying the system then in operation that only the PLP voted for the leader would have made it unlikely as he was everyone’s “second choice”.
Lord Radice said that the issue was vote splitting – three “modernising” candidates ran for leader, but had their votes been added together the total would have beaten the winning candidate Jim Callahan by 19 votes. For Lipsey, Crosland’s legacy lies not so much in parliamentary politics but in his developing the ideas around socialism.
Lipsey was also critical of Jeremy Corbyn saying “I don’t mind him being a lefty [but] I do mind him being so completely out of touch with the modern world”.