Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Blog

How Labour's Two Sides Might be Reconciled

Ben Jackson


elizabeth lies

| 10 mins read

Even for aficionados of Labour internal dysfunction, there is still something disheartening about the inability of the party to pull together and focus on the opportunity opening up before it. What would the Conservative Party do if confronted by an unpopular Labour government changing Prime Ministers without a general election as economic indicators flash red?

Aided by their Greek chorus in the press, the Conservatives would be united in ruthlessly hammering the government’s record, while planning strategically about how to frame the incoming Prime Minister to their maximum political advantage. We know this because that is what happened when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007 (and for that matter, when Jim Callaghan took over from Harold Wilson in 1976). Yet, for some on the Labour left, a more important focus of their energies is noisy criticism of the only person who will be able to displace the new Conservative Prime Minister. For the Labour right, on the other hand, it has been all too easy to revert to the 1990s posture of no quarter to anyone to their left.

One way of understanding what is going on is that both sides are in fact just talking past each other. The debate within Labour is not a real debate at all, because each side has a distinct set of political objectives. The ‘debate’ consists of each side berating the other for failing to aim at goals that only one side of the argument subscribes to. A precondition of a good faith discussion about the party’s future is clearer recognition of what these distinct objectives are and a more nuanced consideration of whether they are in any way compatible. It also requires both sides to summon up some emotional intelligence to understand the perspective of their internal opponents and perhaps even concede that the other side makes some valid points.

Although often dressed in millenarian rhetoric, the basic aim of the Labour right is to get the Labour Party into government, on the grounds that any Labour government will be significantly less harmful than a Conservative one. Once in office, that government will pass legislation enacting ameliorative and deliverable reforms that will reduce poverty and narrow inequality. The time horizon is gradualist and geared to the electoral cycle; the main aim is always to win the next election.

In the service of winning elections, the Labour right considers it essential to adopt uncompromisingly muscular stances on national security and criminal justice (and sometimes immigration) so that Labour gains permission to campaign on the issues that the party has an advantage on, such as public services. The intellectual focus of this fraction of Labour is on getting the technical details of social and economic policy correct so that such policies will be judged ‘credible’ by media and economic elites.

New Labour was the most effective example of this tendency in the party’s history. Given a much fairer electoral and economic wind than at any time before or since, New Labour won an unprecedented three general elections in a row, while undertaking significant investment in the public realm and constitutional reform.

The Labour right is indeed, as its critics like to say, conservative, but in a quite specific sense. It shares with conservatism a pessimism about the feasibility of ambitious schemes of collective action, since Labour moderates are conscious that it is difficult to deliver such schemes at a technical level and that public consent is hard to win for them in a media and political landscape in which Labour is surrounded by opponents to both the left and right. While it is easy for those on the outside of professional politics to be dismissive of this position, it is one that has delivered concrete, measurable improvements to the life chances of many millions of people.

This office-seeking mentality has always had to co-exist within Labour with a more visionary one, which seeks to use the party as the vehicle for a qualitative transformation of British society. From the perspective of the Labour left, the mere occupation of office carries with it no particular virtue—indeed, it simply entangles Labour politicians in existing unfair power structures—unless it leads to substantial social change.

The aim of Labour on this account is not to win elections and thus to make life more tolerable for the worst off; it is to change the political landscape in such a way that a substantively more egalitarian society becomes possible. Although some elements of New Labour’s years in office might be acknowledged with gratitude on the left, they mostly see it as a missed opportunity, because large parliamentary majorities were not used to embed lasting social change.

Such reflections are not only the preserve of the Labour left. Alastair Campbell’s invaluable diaries record a similar conversation between Campbell and none other than Gordon Brown just before the 2005 general election. Campbell records Brown as making the following points in a private conversation:

He [Brown] was angry, he said, that we had had so much opportunity and not done enough with it because we went for these diversions all the time. “We have not recalibrated the debate as we should. We still have the right-wing setting the terms of the debate, and that was one of the things we used to talk about changing when you were at the Mirror and I was writing for the [Daily] Record,” he said. “We have not shifted the country leftward when we had the chance. We raised tax for the NHS but we then wasted the opportunity the debate gave us. We still let the right dictate the terms of the debate.” He looked sad, and shook his head … He said “I don’t expect you to reply but I think you are disappointed too, that we haven’t reshaped things as we hoped. But if we get full employment, the best value for money NHS in the world, state schools as good as anything in the private sector, that will be worth the fight. We can still do that but it means remaking and winning the argument for the public realm. I am worried we are losing that argument because we are playing to their agenda and their philosophy, not our own.”

It is hard not to look at the state of Britain today and think the left (and Gordon Brown in 2005) might have a point. Didn’t the right return to power in 2010 unabashedly ready to push on with the same old agenda, modestly recalibrated to accept certain New Labour reforms? For the Labour left, the legendary 1945 Labour government is the implicit model against which all other Labour governments should be measured—though, as the Labour right would add, this is a myth-encrusted memory of that government that underplays the strong vein of pragmatism embodied by its leading figures.

So, are there simply two opposing worldviews within the Labour Party, with both sides trapped into viewing the party’s future direction as a zero-sum game? It is often hard to see how they might be reconciled. The solution is surely to identify substantive policy overlaps between the two sides that would enable both factions to feel that they have gained a victory. It should be possible to find a few ambitious, but deliverable, reforms that would both give a clear boost to egalitarian aims and Labour’s electoral prospects. The creation of the NHS is of course the classic example of how this was done by Labour in the past.

A more productive internal debate would therefore focus on prioritising a shortlist of such reforms. Possible examples include universal childcare, green investment, labour market regulation, social care, strengthening media plurality, changes to the electoral system. There is plenty to choose from.

Labour partisans would do well to direct their discourse away from abstract debates about how radical or electable the party’s general profile is. Instead, they should consider which specific policies might bind together a coalition of the Labour left and right, be deliverable with a small parliamentary majority or as part of a coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats, be politically difficult for the Conservatives to reverse once they return to office, and create popular new issues for Labour to campaign on in future general elections.

  • Ben Jackson

    Ben Jackson

    Ben Jackson is Co-Editor of the Political Quarterly journal. He is also Professor of Modern History at Oxford University.

    Articles by Ben Jackson