100 years on: the flag is still flying, but is it red?

January 26, 2001

As the Labour Party quietly celebrates its centenary, Gordon Marsden finds continuities between Labour old and new.

Anniversaries are tricky affairs. Certainly they give an opportunity to highlight achievements or characteristics worth talking about anyway. But they also have their complications. They can be like going through the house and realising that new UPVC windows, however necessary to keeping it going, do not automatically go with its other period features. Sometimes it is the worry of going for stripped floorboards only to be told irritatingly, as one PR woman pronounced recently, that "fitted carpets are back".

So it is not that surprising if reaction in the Labour Party to its centenary was a little schizophrenic. The Zeitgeist of "New Labour, New Britain" set beside the commemoration of a centenary in which, as Tony Blair sharply reminds us, too few of the years saw Labour in power, was always going to pose a challenge. Millbank was only too conscious of how easily any nostalgia-based celebrations could have ended up in the sort of never-never Hovis Land ripe for a French and Saunders send-up: in consequence, apart from a splendid travelling exhibition, celebrations were somewhat muted.

These volumes go a significant and useful way towards giving proper consideration to Labour's centenary and its continuing significance for 21st-century Britain. Labour's First Century - the "first" is significant - is more upbeat about the party's record than the bald electoral statistics or an "end of history" report card on the collapse of state socialism might be. The editors emphasise in their introduction that "whatever its weaknesses, the party has many successes to its credit... no party was more successful at actually delivering reforms... more able to deliver when given the opportunity". The other volume, The Labour Party: A Centenary History , despite thoughtful forewords from Michael Foot and Tony Blair that go beyond the usual pieties, is much more muted in its assessment. Its authors introduce the starting point of 1900 with the words: "has the expiry date of that political project long passed?... Should we also sing 'long live the New Labour Party'?" That I think is an overly world-weary observation. One of the strengths of both these books is to show how much of the apparent "newness" of new Labour is in fact an uncanny rerun of earlier modernisations and themes in the party's history. This has direct political relevance today because it underlines the need for less nervousness by today's politicians about recognising this lineage. (To be fair to Blair, he showed as early as 1995 in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of Labour's great election victory an acute awareness of the cross-currents with earlier radical/left-of-centre movements both in the Liberals and Labour.) But too often there has been a tendency to equate new Labour with a Year Zero syndrome.

As in any collection of essays (and A Centenary History is particularly heterogeneous, collating six chronological chapters with seven "reflections" from contemporary politicians), some sections of these two books are stronger than others. They are both at their best when describing the interplay of ideas and social movements that propelled Labour out of the "representation committee" bunker and on to the national stage as a party of government. Both books rightly restore the crucial contribution of local government to winning Labour that credibility - as well as to constructing the electoral coalition that both broadened the base of winnable seats and gave them the local strongholds that enabled the party to survive the wilderness years of national politics in the 1930s and 1950s and the traumas of 1931 and Thatcherism. It is quite clear - despite pioneering work such as Patricia Hollis's book on women in local government - that this is an area where more research would yield rich rewards.

The books perform less well when they deal with some of the traditional narratives of Labour's century - some of the chapters in A Centenary History particularly suffer from a narrowly dry chronological approach to the ins and outs of organisational politics and the economic cycle that run the risk of being as suety for the younger reader as lists of Israelite kings in the Old Testament. But there are compensations, not least in the understanding shown by Keith Jeffrey in A Centenary History of the crucial importance of the decision by Labour leaders to be part of Churchill's wartime cabinet - "by participating Labour's leaders restored lost credibility and were later able to present themselves to the electorate as patriotic". That political positioning was underpinned by the war of ideas - as in Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn - reconciling decent Labour progressivism with patriotic Englishness, and the social and educational initiatives of the war years, notably the Beveridge report and the 1944 Education Act, which set the mood of the population towards the "decent collectivism" that adorned Labour's stall in 1945. As Jose Harris underlines, "Labour became the residuary legatee of a vast range of legal, economic and administrative powers that even its most radical theorists had scarcely dreamt were attainable before 1939."

On Labour's leaders, both books perform modest but useful revisionism. Lewis Baston argues cogently that too negative a view has been taken of the achievements of Harold Wilson's government between 1964 and 1970, reminding readers of the strong economy it left as well as of its social and libertarian achievements. And Eric Shaw rightly stresses the importance of Neil Kinnock in setting in train the modernisation of Labour and courageously confronting in the 1980s the demons that threatened to send Labour electorally the way of the Liberals after 1918. His personal warmth and the trust Labour activists could have that he was "one of us" and would not betray their values saved a whole generation of Labour activists, myself included, from despair in the 1980s.

Time and again, both these books underline that the tensions between the wishes of activists and delivering what that elusive "middle England" might want are not new ones. If Wilson's famous phrase was "the Labour Party is a moral crusade - or it is nothing", the electoral lesson from these pages is that it is a broad coalition or it is nothing. 1945, 1964, 1997 - all were triumphs dependent on an alliance between traditional heartland voters and the progressive middle class,Ja formula that will need to be repeated for success in the next general election too. The proportions in the formula may have changed since 1945; the imperative has not.

Many of the ideas and mechanisms of new Labour have a whiff of déja vu about them for the historians as well. Harris emphasises the diversity of the ideas that whirled around the Labour Representation Committee's founding fathers, everything from "anti-modernist medievalism" to "the quest for advanced 'scientific' modernity".

The reform of the Lords, a settlement of the Irish question, electoral reform, debate about regional assemblies contained in Fabian Society pamphlets entitled (with an engaging homage to Anglo-Saxon history) "The New Heptarchy" - have these not been meat and drink to new Labour? One of the key influences cited by the newly elected MPs of the LRC in 1906 was John Ruskin - and do his ideas about environmentalism and an ethic of public service not strike a chord in today's political debate? The new liberalism of 1900-14, with which early Labour was at least prepared to seek an accommodation, was concerned about renewing local government, renewing a sense of community and combating social exclusion: all key themes in new Labour's first term. Steven Fielding has elsewhere argued strongly that old Labour critics of today's modernisers have neglected (deliberately or otherwise) these antecedents - here he goes further in a sparky essay entitled "New Labour and the past" to assert that the fixing of socialist "tradition" to the Clause Four of 1918 has dangerously skewed our view of Labour: "It is as if between 1918 and 1945, the party had discovered a transcendental truth to which future generations were obliged to remain committed." The problem for the party under Thatcherism was not that its values fell out of favour - they did not - but that the application of them via particular economic nostrums about taxation, ownership and the public sector became unpopular and irrelevant.

And Fielding is also surely right to point to the importance of rights, liberties and ethics - much discussed in early socialist and radical circles but relegated in importance once a materialistic view of Labour's political appeal increasingly dominated the party in the interwar years. This ties in with perhaps the freshest discussion in these books, that on Labour and gender. Martin Francis shows how important women were to the development of Labour's appeal - not just because of the newly enfranchised female workers but also because of the tradition of "sensible" female philanthropy in the party. It was women who pushed social deprivation and welfare issues and broadened the agenda beyond collective bargaining and male working-class concerns. It was women who increasingly were important in Labour's local-government initiatives and constituency and branch organisation. And women provided some of the brightest stars in Labour's can-do firmament - think of Ellen Wilkinson or Barbara Castle (the latter still electrifying last year's Labour conference in her 90th year). Then - as now - ghettoism (in the women's sections), family policy that looked out for "the male breadwinner, not the citizen mother", and "yearning for masculine authenticity" - for old Labour read new laddism - threatened to block a broader agenda. Harris rightly identifies Tony Crosland's Future of Socialism as a key text - "a sea-change in Labour's social and political philosophy... it hinted that the future might lie with consumerism and private libertarianism rather than control of production". Tensions in the 1960s over a more liberal social agenda on divorce, homosexuality and abortion rights have surfaced again under a new Labour government grappling with defining families and equality in partnerships and balancing civil liberty with all the new means of surveillance and intrusion into individuals' lives.

This is not just a matter of getting the history right. It is central to the new agendas 21st-century politics will throw up. As national government's role shrinks further in economic and financial realms, so the pressure on it and its elected representatives for their views and a lead on issues of rights and liberties gathers apace. genetically modified foods, in-vitro fertilisation treatments, so-called therapeutic cloning, gene therapy, debates over hunting, gun controls and abortion, plus all the security issues mentioned above - issues that historically bread-and-butter Labour has not even begun to address from first principles. Looking at the past therefore in pursuit of clues for how we handle the future is far from being an antiquarian exercise.

Given the importance that new Labour has attached to globalisation, it is encouraging to find historians such as Berger and Harris arguing here that the Labour Party has been far less different and isolationist in its international links than has sometimes been assumed. Berger reminds us of Labour's role in rebuilding the Socialist International after 1918, of Denis Healey's role in promoting the German SPD after 1945 and the reconnection of new Labour to the new liberal socialism of Western Europe in the 1990s. The contribution of the party to causes such as decolonisation, anti-apartheid and now to initiatives such as Jubilee 2000 and debt relief have meant that it has often punched above its weight in international standing. And in today's debates about human rights interventions and ethical foreign policy are dilemmas that earlier leaders such as George Lansbury and even Ramsay MacDonald would have recognised.

The urgency with which Tony Blair and others in new Labour have pursued that international agenda - and which a Bush presidency impervious to joined-up global thinking might yet retard - is underlined by a keenness to see the 21st century as one in which left-of-centre progressivist ideas hold sway. This links directly back to all Labour's domestic traumas about its falling short in the 20th century: as Blair laments at the opening of A Centenary History : "Downing Street is steeped in history, but too little of it is Labour history." So it is appropriate that the historians have paid due attention here to Labour's self-image and what Jon Lawrence perceptively traces as the party's myth-making in which its activists "have internalised... their party's past... to shape their understanding of its present - and its future". Keir Hardie's "golden age", the "betrayal" of 1931 and to a lesser extent the Gang of Four of 50 years later, the "quiet heroism of the working class" that paved the way to the 1945 victory and perhaps retarded Labour in the 1950s from responding to new consumerism, "Labour's coming home" of 1997 - all these have defined what Labour's rank and file have thought.

Lawrence has a warning for new Labour here: "By relying so heavily on myths of newness to define their project, they have largely conceded the terrain of the past". Future opponents of the party in adversity will not be slow to challenge with their own versions of Labour's century. All the more reason why Labour strategists should look at these books and learn that they do not need to fear the question "what do we do when we're no longer new?" There are dogs that do not bark very loudly in these volumes, such as Labour and education (strange when one considers how many of the party's visions of empowerment and individuals' rites of passage have been grounded in it). Others, extraordinarily, do not bark at all - the cultural, environmental and green issues that are surely set to dominate the 21st-century political agenda. But overall there is more than enough in both to do justice to Labour's century and its enduring appeal - to promote a left-of-centre society with an informed, generous, pluralistic and inclusive citizenry. That is a bread-and-butter Jerusalem to which Keir Hardie and Tony Blair could surely both subscribe.

Gordon Marsden is Labour MP for Blackpool South and was editor, History Today , 1985-97.

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