Speaking Volumes: Parliamentary Socialism

February 24, 1995

Frank Webster on Ralph Miliband's Parliamentary Socialism .

Now that there is an almost palpable enthusiasm around in intellectual circles for Tony Blair's new look, even electable, Labour Party, it seems especially appropriate to be reminded of the late Ralph Miliband's Parliamentary Socialism: a Study in the Politics of Labour (1961).

I first came across the book as an undergraduate in the early 1970s in a difficult political context. Many of us were trying to come to terms with the disappointments that had followed six years of governments led by Harold Wilson. The early promise of the radical reformer who promised a "new Britain" and profound change in social and economic organisation had been dashed with Wilson's kow-towing to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and by his doing just about everything required to retain the confidence of business and financial interests. Miliband's scholarly history of Labour's obsession with "parliamentarism", from the party's very origins at the turn of the century, helped explain why the Wilson administrations so readily subordinated them selves to the status quo.

The memorable opening lines strike the keynote: "Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most system dogmatic - not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system". Labour has always been obsessed with winning and retaining a parliamentary majority, so much so that this has become an end in itself. Its corollaries are a disposition towards compromised policies, towards achieving "respectability" and approving media headlines, towards appearing "responsible", "credible" and "reasonable". Above all, it has brought with it an impatience and intolerance towards extra-parliamentary actions. Demonstrations in the street, withholding of rents, occupations and especially "disruptive" strikes, have been anathema to Labour in and out of office. Parliamentary means "trust us", consolidate the majority in the Commons, vote for us and then leave things to the elected representatives who would pass legislation when times were propitious (they rarely were).

In this way Labour has found itself not transforming capitalism, but shoring it up by frantic efforts to avert crises of sterling or to resolve some industrial dispute or other, while vainly attempting to appease vocal, especially business, opinion. Thereby, far from offering an alternative to capitalism, Labour has consistently found itself adapting to its exigencies.

The odd thing is that, while all this was going on, business interests never hesitated to act in extra-parliamentary ways, from making runs on the pound, withholding investment, avoiding taxation, and, of course, mobilising opinion and measures against anything coming from Labour (pretty well everything) of which they disapproved. And the more they subverted Labour's plans by these actions, the more Labour in office modified them in order to assuage the business world. And the more they did this, the more Labour moved away from socialist policies.

We may reasonably anticipate an electoral victory for Tony Blair during the next couple of years. Miliband's seminal study warns us not to expect anything more, and probably a good deal less, than we have had from previous Labour administrations.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology at Oxford Brookes University.

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