“A thoughtful analysis of Labour’s current impasse – back to 1918 in more senses than one”
Niamh Hardiman, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, University College Dublin
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn have been pulling Labour in different directions for decades. But under the surface there are some common roots in their thinking. Also Blair created some of the circumstances in which Corbyn was decisively elected as Labour Party Leader in 2015, with 59.5 per cent of the vote.
Both Blair and Corbyn have enjoyed huge support among Labour members. How could this radical transformation of political opinion take place within a large political party, in the space of less than 20 years?
To answer this question we must first briefly examine how Labour evolved from 1945 to 1979, as a mass party based on strong trade unions. Then came the earthquake of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979. Labour was defeated in three subsequent elections, before Tony Blair led Labour into power for thirteen years. Blair had help to make Labour electable by combining a reforming momentum with a pro-business image, but he did not provide an adequate political philosophy to replace traditional socialism.
This vacuum, combined with the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Labour’s part in the financial crash of 2008, created the conditions for the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Corbyn turned Labour’s ideological clock back by over half a century and lost its prospect of electability.
Post-War Labour: The Broad Church
After the first majority Labour government was elected in 1945, Labour party individual membership was rising rapidly towards one million and trade union membership began a long upward trend, rising from about 8 million in 1945 to 13 million in 1979. In general elections from 1945 to 1979 inclusive, Labour always polled between 36 per cent and 49 per cent of the vote. Labour was a mass party, built on the pillars of organised individual membership, powerful trade union support, a strong presence in parliament, and the loyalty of over a third of the electorate.
Labour’s commitment to widespread common ownership was enshrined in Clause Four of its constitution, which had been adopted in 1918. Before he became Prime Minister in 1945, Clement Attlee had expressed his support for this full-blooded socialist vision of a planned economy with widespread public ownership. But the practicalities of government, and the outbreak of the Cold War in 1948, pushed Labour leaders and intellectuals towards social democracy and a mixed economy. The most important statement of this shift was Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism in 1956.
But, despite the efforts of Hugh Gaitskell and others, Labour’s Clause Four remained unchanged. Labour contained both classical socialist and social-democratic currents. But the socialist wing never achieved supremacy, largely because it had insufficient support among the trade unions that were affiliated to the party. The great union flywheel kept Labour on a social-democratic course. The first-past-the-post electoral system made a party split and a socialist breakaway unviable.
The Thatcher Era: From Multiple Defeats to Recovery
The 1979 defeat of the Labour Government under James Callaghan brought Margaret Thatcher to power and an ensuing 18 years of Tory rule. At first, in reaction to this defeat, the traditional socialist wing of the party made gains under the leadership of Tony Benn. In 1980, Michael Foot, a radical social democrat, was elected as party leader. In 1981, Dennis Healey narrowly defeated Benn for the Deputy Leadership. In frustration with Labour’s shift to the Left and the use of union block votes, a sizeable portion split off to form the Social Democratic Party.
Labour’s 1983 general election manifesto prescribed a good dose of nationalisation, an interventionist industrial policy, unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher personal taxation and withdrawal from the European Economic Community (now the European Union). Tested at the polls, Labour’s vote slumped below 28 per cent, for the first time since 1918.
Then Foot resigned. Neil Kinnock was elected as leader, beginning the long process of making Labour electable once again. Kinnock fought the Marxist entryists in the party, modernised its policies on vital issues such as home ownership, and made it more credible.
Meanwhile, Thatcher continued her assault on Labour’s trade union base. A series of restrictive laws reduced trade union powers. By the time that Labour regained power in 1997, trade union membership had been reduced by more than a third. Today, trade union membership is less than half what it was in 1979, notwithstanding a bigger workforce.
The Blair Revolution: From Socialism to Undeclared Liberalism
The long period in opposition from 1979 to 1997 convinced a majority of Labour members that principle was impotent without power, and that some compromises were necessary to make Labour electable. In this climate, Tony Blair was elected as party leader in 1994.
The term ‘New Labour’ separated the party from its previous electoral baggage, including its original primary focus on common ownership and its antagonism to private business. Blair argued that previous socialists had confused means with ends. The desired end was a society in which all individuals would be valued and had the means of self-fulfilment. If common ownership had been a means that end in the past, then it was no longer appropriate for the modern, complex, global economy.
In 1995 Blair successfully removed Labour’s commitment to ‘common ownership’ from Clause Four of its constitution. But from the Left, Tony Benn protested: ‘Labour’s heart is being cut out’. In a sense Benn was right, common ownership had been Labour’s core principle since 1918, even if no leader since 1945 had made it a primary goal.
Blair hyphenated the word as ‘social-ism’ and attempted to change its meaning. It now meant a recognition of individuals as socially interdependent, the promotion of social justice and of equality of opportunity, recognising the equal worth of each citizen. He also used the term ‘third way’ to describe a path that differed from widespread collectivisation, on the one hand, and unrestrained markets, on the other.
While Blair saw a sizable role for the market, he was not a ‘neoliberal’ or a free-market libertarian. The state was still to play a major role in the economy. But redistributive taxation and the reduction of inequality were not major priorities. Blair’s close ally Peter Mandelson declared in 1998 that the Labour Government was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes’.
While Blair redefined and retained the word social-ism, he moved Labour closer to a version of social liberalism. There is a radical tradition of social liberalism, but it is not socialist in the sense of widespread common ownership. The good of the community is seen as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. This tradition stretches from Thomas Paine through John Stuart Mill to Thomas H. Green, John A. Hobson and others.
From Paine onwards, social liberals raised concerns about inequalities of wealth and power. They appreciated the complexity of decision-making and the potential fallibility of government. Hence they advocated flexibility: there was a need for policy experiments and ongoing appraisals. Institutional checks and balances were required. But for Blair it was all about ‘values’, not structures or institutions.
Labour’s nostalgic devotion to the word socialism was too strong. With or without the hyphen, social-ism had become a zombie-term – a mere badge of identity. Labour was still stuck in its old rhetoric and unable to learn much from the broad liberal tradition.
Blairism as Marxism turned Upside-Down
The relationship between means and ends is important. Marxism famously separates ends from means, claiming that ‘the ends justify the means’. For Marxism, all means are evaluated solely in terms of the ends that they are deemed to serve. But in a complex world, we cannot be sure that specific means will lead to their assumed ends. Hence, contrary to Marxism, means must be placed under moral constraints as well.
Blair argued that the emphasis on common ownership or nationalization confused means with ends. The ends of social harmony and social justice, for example, might be achieved by means other than common ownership. Ironically, by separating means and ends so completely, Blair mirrored Marxism. Blair used a Marx-like separation of ends from means to abandon classical socialist aims.
But means and ends cannot be completely separated. The American philosopher John Dewey pointed out that the pursuit of goal is itself a learning process that can modify our ends. Furthermore, the use of particular means might modify our ends, as we discover unforeseen problems or benefits. Furthermore, the end we uphold is a spur to action, hence also a means of energizing change. Dewey wrote: ‘there is no end which is not in turn a means’.
Blair adopted another dichotomy from Marxism. This is the separation of the sphere of ‘values and beliefs’ from economic structures and patterns of ownership. This is redolent of Marx’s distinction between the ideological ‘superstructure’ and the ‘economic base’. But Blair reversed their importance: for him ‘values and beliefs’ assumed primacy. Adopting the same dichotomy, Marxism was turned upside-down.
This Marxist dichotomy is false. All economic activity involves beliefs, evaluations and value-laden motivations. Values and beliefs are intrinsic to the economy. The economy is not a machine that can be considered separately from the knowledge, beliefs and expectations of the human agents within it.
Blair in Power: From Achievement to Catastrophe
Blair’s highly charismatic and effective leadership led to the electoral landslide of 1997. Labour’s share of the vote jumped from 34.4 per cent in 1992 to 43.2 per cent in 1997. Especially in the early years, his government achieved a great deal. Education and the National Health Service benefitted for large increases in spending.
One of the first major achievements of Blair’s government was the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland. A minimum wage was introduced and devolved assemblies were set up in Scotland and Wales. The Human Rights Act was passed in 1998, but the Blair government was later accused of complicity in human rights abuses abroad. There was important legislation in pursuit of gay rights. Child and pensioner poverty were dramatically reduced. There was continuous economic growth. Many more people were brought into employment.
Blair won another landslide election in 2001. Demonstrably, by a wide margin, he had made Labour electable, after the wilderness of the Thatcher era. But he did not offer Labour a new philosophy or a robust architecture, after the abandonment of traditional socialism and the decline of its trade union base. Even before Iraq, some of his new policies were challengeable.
For example, Blair’s emphasis on ‘values and beliefs’ over institutional structures allowed him to privatize some public services, including parts of the National Health Service. His claim was that the same esteemed values could endure within any system of ownership. But changes to institutional structures affect the habits and beliefs of those involved. Extending the scope for contracts and markets means – rightly or wrongly – that pecuniary and profit-orientated values can become more pervasive, unless checks are put in place.
Consistent with his emphasis on ‘values and beliefs’, Blair promoted a programme of expansion of publicly-funded faith schools. But religious faiths are not simply ‘values’: they are organised enclaves of group self-protection and survival. As already evident from the long experience of segregation in Northern Ireland, institutionalised separation can exacerbate political, ethnic and cultural divisions.
A 2001 report commissioned by Bradford City Council concluded that its communities were becoming increasingly isolated along racial, cultural and religious lines, and that faith-segregated schools were fuelling the divisions. Major riots erupted that year in Bradford and other northern cities.
David Bell – the then Chief Inspector of Schools – warned in a January 2005 speech to the Hansard Society that a traditional Islamic education did not equip Muslim children for living in modern Britain. He said: ‘I worry that many young people are being educated in faith-based schools, with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society.’ In another lecture Bell said: ‘We can choose … whether we want to bring our diversity together in a single rainbow or whether we allow our differences to fester into separate cultures and separate communities.’ Yet, even after the July 2005 London bombings by home-grown Islamic extremists, and until his resignation from office in 2007, Prime Minister Blair continued to promote faith schools.1
Blair’s government reduced the number of heredity peers in the House of Lords, but dithered on further reform. Whether the House of Lords should be fully appointed, fully elected, or be subject to a combination of the two remained under dispute. Blair worried that the House of Lords might impair the will of the Commons – institutionalised checks and balances were not central to his thinking.
Then there was the catastrophe of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Blair was over-confident that his ‘values’ could prevail, and President George W. Bush could be persuaded to seek United Nations approval. But these ‘values’ were no match for a belligerent Republican Party.
Of dubious legality, this bloody disaster wrecked Blair’s political career. Deadly strife in Iraq continues to this day, with enduring political reverberations in the UK.
Blair’s motivation for his decision to support Bush’s invasion will be the subject of many biographies and histories to come. The explanation is bound to be complex, but I guess that Blair’s supreme emphasis on ‘values’ over legalities, structures, evidence, fallibilities and practicalities will be uppermost. How else could someone believe in the possibility that Western democratic ideals could quickly take hold in an artificially-created country with no democratic history, riven by ethnic and religious division and fragmented into countless clans?
Blair was an outstanding politician: he restored Labour’s electability and won three major victories in succession. But when he stepped down from office in 2007 he left an ideological as well as a charismatic vacuum. Labour retained the term socialism, but in substance Blair moved Labour toward an untutored version of reforming liberalism. Largely because of the damage to Blair’s reputation after Iraq, the party was unable to digest this ideological shift.
Blair compounded a problem faced by social democratic parties throughout the world. To a large extent they have lost their way, lacking a well-developed ideology with related, viable goals.
The Corbyn Restoration: Marxism-Leninism Revived
After Blair’s exit, the theoretical, ideological and charismatic void helps to explain why the Labour Party eventually choose the retro-Marxist Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.2 Furthermore, the weakened trade unions were no longer a moderating force: the flywheel had been dismantled. Constitutional changes had given them less power within Labour’s structure and the power they retained had been moved by internal changes to the Left.
The financial crash of 2008 undermined Labour’s reputation for sound finance. When Gordon Brown was Labour Chancellor under Blair, he promoted significant deregulation of the financial sector. After the debt bubble burst, and Western capitalism teetered on the edge of collapse, there was a widespread resurgence of Marxist thinking.
Corbyn turned the clock back, returning to socialism in its original meaning. The goal of common ownership was restored. His semi-Marxist, Bennite socialism was combined with a quasi-Leninist foreign policy. Opposed to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to the oppressive treatment of Palestinians by Israel, Corbyn’s foreign policy became systematically anti-West. Corbyn turned Marxism the right way up.
As if oblivious to the enormous changes in world capitalism, Corbyn clings to an ideology made in 1918. There is neither strategy, detail nor appraisal of feasibilty, to his thinking. All that is left is his ‘values’: his outrage and protest against forces from the West that inflict suffering on the world. There is no mention of the many millions that have died under regimes that were ‘Marxist-Leninist’ by name.
Although very different from Blair’s, Corbyn’s ideology faces the same problem of dealing with the potential fallibility of all decisions and policies. Both Blair and Corbyn proceeded as if they had the uncontroversial right answer to any problem. Yet the complexity of the modern world underlines the need for an experimental approach to policy, and for countervailing institutional structures to appraise every move.
Unlike Blair, Corbyn believes that these problems can be solved by large doses of democracy and popular involvement. But he overlooks the problems and dangers of undetailed ultra-democracy. Widespread democratic involvement in the myriad of intricate decisions in a complex politico-economic system is unworkable.
While Blair after 2003 carried the scars of Iraq, Corbyn is on record in his support for terrorist organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA. He has claimed that he was engaging in the peace processes in these theatres of combat. But there was no visible negotiation with the other sides in these conflicts. Corbyn has also given speeches supporting Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi’s regime in Libya and Slobodan Milosevic, the butcher of Bosnian Muslims. Corbyn’s behaviour was more consistent with an ‘anti-imperialist’ and anti-West Leninist than with a broker for peace.
In 1918, Labour first established individual party membership and the ‘common ownership’ Clause Four was first placed in its constitution. Corbyn’s Leninism would take us back to the year after Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. Momentum yes – but backwards in time. Over a hundred years of hard work by millions of activists, building Labour as a political movement and as a party of government, will be reversed.
Corbyn’s political brew has little chance of success. But we should understand the unwitting role of Blair in helping to prepare the ground for its ascendancy within the Labour machine.
Conclusion: Beginning Again
Values are important, but we need more than that. While conservatives can nod in favour of the status quo, radicals must offer a distinctive vision for change – they have to outline the kind of future they want. A movement to change the world must uphold its aims and recruit to its cause.
Changed under Blair’s leadership, the current Labour Party Constitution outlines commendable principles such as by ‘common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’. It laudably aims for a society where ‘power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few’ and ‘where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect’.
But these words are too vague to provide a clear goal. They are consistent with a range of idealistic plans, from statist socialism to egalitarian ‘people’s capitalism’.
The current Clause Four Part One is silent on the question of property, whether it is to be private or owned in common. Reference to ‘a thriving private sector’ is tucked away in Part Two, alongside a mention of public ownership or accountability where ‘essential to the common good’.
This unmotivated melange satisfies neither traditional socialists who see common ownership as a vital goal, nor liberals who regard some private ownership as one of the preconditions of human freedom. Clause Four is inaudible on these vital institutional questions. ‘Values’ fill the vacuum instead.
Clause Four commendably promotes democracy and human rights, but is unclear about the institutional and politico-economic conditions under which they are nurtured. It does not acknowledge one of the major lessons of the twentieth century, that human rights and traditional socialism have never co-existed, and there are good reasons to conclude that they never will.
The institutional aims of the Labour Party are unclear. There is now a battle for the stricken party’s soul. It will be fought out between traditional socialists and social-democratic modernisers. But it will be a fight over an organisation that has already lost its direction and has no clear way forward. Both Blair and Corbyn bear some responsibility for this crisis.
10 July 2016
Amended: 11-13 July 2016, 18 February 2019.
1 Like Blair, Corbyn also supports faith schools (at least Jewish ones).
2 Pressed by Andrew Marr in July 2015 on whether he was a Marxist, Corbyn ducked the opportunity to deny on television that he held to that view.
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