It is new, but it's not Labour

February 25, 2000

To mark the centenary of its founding this weekend, the Labour Party, says Brian Brivati, should think less about trade unions and more about trade descriptions and come up with a name to match its nature.

How should Tony Blair's new Labour government mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Labour Party? There are going to be speeches this weekend, events in London and Manchester, and the moment coincides with the government rediscovering the importance of its grass roots - old Labour seems suddenly so much more relevant than it did two years ago.

And yet, nothing has changed. If politics were not quite so absurd, then new Labour could come clean this weekend and admit that the party is over, that it has been over for a long time and that it is time to gain legitimacy by refounding itself as a new political force.

This would prove that Labour is actually more than a brand for winning power, more than just a vote accumulating machine. It might also help to renew some of the trust that has haemorrhaged from politics over the past 25 years.

Political parties should exist for purposes beyond the mere survival of their brand identity. If they do not, then the legitimacy of politics itself is undermined.

A political party is multidimensional. It can alter drastically in a number of ways but remain the same thing. The social and political furniture of parties is constantly rearranged in the hunt for electoral success.

The essence of democratic socialist politics could survive alteration in individual aspects or in a combination of aspects but not in all aspects simultaneously.

In the 1990s, however, the underlying assumptions of the Labour Party's ideology were transformed way beyond the dictates of the changed conditions the United Kingdom faced. Its ethos was altered consciously to exclude its traditional members and styles of discourse, its formal structures were brought into line with the long-standing informal reality of the exercise of internal power, its membership enfranchised to remove the power of activists. All aspects of its existence have been altered or are in the process of being altered.

The political party, the historical entity that is new Labour, was with one bound released from its history, freed from the weight of expectations that that history brings. We might expect political change from new Labour, but who expects real social and economic change from the present government? The party is liberated from the welter of contradictions that its history has created.

The Labour Party was a democratic socialist party that no longer believed in planning. New Labour need apologise to no one for embracing the market economy. But the most important liberation for new Labour was from class-based politics and the representation of interests rather than ideas or values. The trade union link is already irrelevant to the new party.

All these changes need to be formalised. A conference should have been called for this weekend. The old Labour movement could have been invited, along with the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry and pressure groups such as Amnesty International.

A new constitution could have been enshrined, structured around the direct polling of a mass membership organised nationally and expressing a faith in market economics, social conservatism and a reformed welfare state that places duties before entitlements.

Delegates would have debated the shape of the future and voted down anything that was too radical or revolutionary. The result would have been a legitimate political party fighting an election on the single ticket of its own beliefs and not trying to marry this with the ghost of collectivism's past.

None of this is practical politics, it will not happen. No major political party or any other institution in this country will ever have the courage to say "I am obsolete, get rid of me".

It is time we had the courage to close down institutions such as the Labour Party when they have run their course and acknowledge the identity of what has replaced them. That would have made for a real centenary to celebrate.

Brian Brivati is reader in history at Kingston University and co-editor of The Labour Party: A Centenary History, published in April by Macmillan.

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