In a speech on Saturday, Labour’s new leader Ed Miliband proclaimed that he wants Labour to become once again the ‘People’s Party’. Whilst I’m completely convinced that he would like people to believe that Labour can return to its roots to that extent, I’m rather less convinced that he really wants it to be true, or that it would be achievable if he did.
The British Establishment has always had a superb record of drawing discordant voices into itself and assimilating them without actually changing very much in the process. I was re-reading parts of Bob McKenzie on British Political Parties the other day. First time for years, but it reminded me of how different the origins of the Labour and Conservative Parties are, given how similar they’ve become.
The Conservative Party was founded in Parliament, of parliamentarians – indeed, if I remember correctly, until the 1980s, no-one who wasn’t an MP could actually join the party, they could only join the local ‘association’. Labour, on the other hand, was founded outside parliament, with the aim of getting its representatives elected and securing radical change.
They’ve both changed. People can now join the Conservative Party as ordinary members (although the party has never embraced the concept of democratic decision making!).
Labour has changed far more; it’s become more top-down, less democratic, less open to serious debate on policy, and very much part of the establishment. People sometimes suggest that Blairism was some sort of aberration; I suspect it was merely the latest manifestation of a very long set of processes. The chances of Miliband (or Brown before him) reversing other than a few superficial policies were always negligible.
One could have an interesting debate about the causes. Was it really the power grab by leaders and parliamentarians as which it’s sometimes been painted? The problems certainly began very early in the party’s history, as entries in Beatrice Webb’s diaries reveal. (One of my favourites was her description of Ramsay MacDonald as “a magnificent substitute for a leader”; her comments on others were equally acerbic. I’d love to see what she would have had to say on Blair or Brown.)
I’m not convinced that what happened to the Labour Party was as simple as being the result of individuals pursuing their own interests. I suspect that it was close to being an inevitable outcome when an initially radical party succumbed to the temptation to work entirely within the system, and fell under the control of the civil service in the process.
The comparison between achieving something by working in and with the institutions and achieving nothing by being in perpetual conflict with them is a stark one; the temptation to do what they could to help people in the here and now must have been pretty much irresistible. Given the social and economic conditions of the time, it’s harsh to be overly critical.
But combining that sense of urgency in the here-and-now with keeping alive a radical vision was never going to be an easy thing for Labour to achieve; we shouldn’t really be surprised at the extent of their failure. The surprising thing for me is more that so many people who do have a different vision have stuck with the party for so long.
In opposition, Labour generally have a tendency to sound rather more radical than their behaviour in government would suggest. Miliband will, no doubt, follow that historical habit. Somehow, though, I don’t see Labour ever really recapturing the idealism of the party’s founders.