Labourism, the New Labour revolution and what comes next?

Gerry Hassan

Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture, Autumn 2010

The New Labour era has finally ended. And though the full scale of the destruction and wreckage which it has inflicted upon British politics, society and progressive ideas will not be entirely clear until we can gain an element of hindsight through the passage of time, this is not a happy story. Nor is there any prospect of a ‘Back to the Future’ politics for Labour – a ‘restoration’ that returns us back to the certainties and parameters of life pre-New Labour. This might seem comforting and desirable to some, but they are pining for a world which no longer exists.

Fundamental to how we understand the past, present and future of the Labour Party is the term ‘labourism’, which has for a long time been used to describe the party, movement and wider labour interest. The term was used by Theodore Rothstein as long ago as the end of the nineteenth century.1 Rothstein was critical of the idea that a party could simply ‘represent’ the interest of labour (as embodied in trade unions) without developing a distinctive socialist politics critical of existing institutions. He was also critical of labourism’s focus on wages, its economism, at the expense of wider issues, and of its sectionalism. Instead of a call for justice for all, or a radical challenge to the relations of power, those in the labourist tradition simply wanted more of the national cake for the constituency they represented. And for Rothstein, the British state reinforced the ‘non-political, opportunistic and counter-revolutionary’ character of the working class (From Chartism to Labourism, p276). He was scathing on the record of British socialism, Fabianism and ILP ethical socialism, and in assessing Labour’s record up to 1929 argued that ‘its fortunes have most strikingly confirmed the fact that opportunist ideology presented an insurmountable obstacle to the development of a genuine, potentially revolutionary political class struggle of the proletariat’(p281).

For Michael Young, writing forty years later: ‘The historian’s puzzle is why the Labour Party lasted so long: what could more perfectly illustrate the principle of social inertia? Like democracy itself, the Labour Party was a reaction against the feudal tradition. It arose out of the old working class as it was called, which had such solidarity because its name belied it: it was not so much class as caste.’2

This essay addresses how the concept of labourism has evolved, and its usefulness for understanding some of the recurring problems of the Labour Party.

What is labourism?

The notion of labourism later became strongly associated with New Left writers such as John Saville, Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, who – Saville in particular – explicitly drew from an existing set of ideas and literature on labourism, within which Rothstein’s work was central. Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn developed the analysis of the composition of the British state, arguing that because there had been no real bourgeois revolution in Britain much of the ancien regime remained, which accounted for the ‘comprehensive conservatism’ of the entire economic, social and political order, whose main pillars sprang from the influence of aristocratic values. They placed their understanding of Labour, labourism and organised labour in this framework. Anderson wrote that ‘a supine bourgeoisie produced a subordinate proletariat’, while Nairn reflected that, ‘the history of a party … cannot fail to be the history of a given social class’.3 Labourism was shaped by the influence of trade unions, an acceptance of a narrow economism, pale, complicit parliamentarianism and the weakness of any socialist intellectual culture. Saville wrote: ‘Labourism has nothing to do with socialism … The Labour Party has never had, nor is it capable of becoming a vehicle for socialist advance’.4 This became one of the central axioms of New Left critiques of labourism, but it is an insight that some later writers on the theme have neglected.

Labourism has also had a profound relationship with the British nation and its boundaries and values, shaped by the internal and external dynamics of the UK: the Empire, the legacy and reach of imperialism, and the ways this has affected the make-up of Britain and its ‘Empire State’. Tom Nairn addressed the insular, conservative ‘little Englander’ mentality of British labourism (and much of the wider left) in his penetrating and persuasive best: ‘one may say that while Labour seems … to stand for class against nation, it represents in reality the ascendancy of nation and the state over class’. Labourism was ‘a complex estrangement of “class” and “nation”’.5

The New Left analyses and theses were attempting to draw together a politics of critique and a politics of practice and possibility; and this perspective had a deep influence and effect on a whole generation of left thinkers and writers. But as the latter part of this equation has slipped away, some of the usage of the term has become more problematic, and it has been sometimes been framed within a static, pre-given notion of politics. For example, Andy Newman in his recent Soundings piece displays a wistful romanticism; recoiling from the era of New Labour, he is too optimistic about what can be regained from the old labourist culture. Andrew Pearmain’s essay, to which Newman takes exception, is an even more flawed analysis: it starts by laying out labourism’s complicity with patriotism, nationalism and empire but concludes with placing the BNP within the labourist tradition – a serious misunderstanding of both the appeal of the BNP and of labourism.6

However other writers have made a more useful contribution to our understanding. For example, David Marquand has showed a subtle understanding of the strength and limits of Labour’s appeal and labourism, central to which was that ‘its ethos, the symbols, rituals, shared memories and unwritten understandings … has been saturated with the ethos of trade unionism’.7 Henry Drucker, writing in 1979, also added to our understanding of the pulse at the heart of Labour. He stressed the difference between its ‘formal doctrines’ and its ‘ethos’ – the unsaid, indefinable and collective memory of the past that contributed to how Labour saw itself as different and unique, and which gave succour to labourism.8

On the other hand, James Cronin, an influential scholar of Labour, is unable to distinguish between labourism and socialism, and challenges the notion that they are separate concepts in conflict with each other: ‘Arguments about the nature of the Labour Party have often counterposed labourism to socialism as if they were distinct and rival perspectives, but the actual record of the party demonstrates instead a coexistence, an interaction, a compatibility’; ‘Socialism was the end of Labourism, the distant goal …’.9 This is to fail to understand the labourist critique of Saville et al, which was drawn from a wider well of thinking, and understood that Labour was not and never had been a socialist party. Nor had it been a social-democratic party: these words were never pronounced by senior Labour politicians for most of the twentieth century, and only came to prominence, briefly, during the long retreat of the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, Labour was a party of labour and labourism which at certain points implemented social-democratic and occasionally socialist measures.

Richard Crossman got to part of the heart of the matter when he argued that Labour’s famous Clause Four was a deliberate illusion – to give the impression that Labour was socialist when the reality was the exact opposite.10 Crossman believed that the old Clause Four of the 1918 constitution was directed towards the party’s cadre of activists, and the socialist minority in its ranks, but that its structures had been expressly devised to make sure it was not a socialist party, but rather was one that represented the labour interest:

since it could not afford, like its opponents, to maintain a large army of paid party workers, the Labour Party required militants – politically conscious socialists to do the work of organising the constituencies … But since these militants tended to be ‘extremists’, a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm by apparently creating a full party democracy while excluding them from effective power (pp 41-2).

1918 was a crucial point in the evolution of Labour, the juncture when it took the form of a national political party, with organisation, structures and individual members. And at this time Labour was re-emphasising its calling as a party of labour; it sought to create a broad church which brought labour together with socialists, progressives, radicals, egalitarians, non-conformists and technocrats. But the dominance of labourism within that alliance was never in question.

From Bevanism to Bennism, New Left to New Labour

During the postwar period there have been many different expressions of labourism, and many hopes raised and dashed for a left post-labourist politics. Bevanism – the Labour left phenomenon around Aneurin Bevan in the 1940s and 1950s – was a left variant of labourism; but its version of left politics was defined by trade union power, economism, parliamentarianism and a conservative understanding of the character of the British state – not to mention a continuing lack of socialist intellectual ideas.

The emergence of Bennism around Tony Benn in the 1970s and 1980s led many, both inside and outside the Labour Party, to hope that a post-labourist politics would be possible, drawing from radical currents outside Labour such as feminist, green and decentralist socialist traditions. The reality turned out to be something different: ultimately, Bennism articulated another leftist expression of labourism, shaped by Labour tribalism, chauvinism and the conservative impulses of the party. It deified trade union power, failed to break away from economism and an obsession with parliamentarianism, and was burdened with a profound, disabling little Englanderism, which envisaged that the UK would shift from being an imperial state to become a moral leader, due to its post-imperial example.

The hope of the New Left either to supplant or transform Labour into a radical socialist force was dashed. What came next, instead, was a development which appeared to embrace the politics of transformation, and drew from and appropriated some of the New Left language and understandings. In particular, it articulated some of the criticisms of Labour and labourism seen in the analysis of Marxism Today. Namely New Labour.

The sixteen years of New Labour (1994-2010) saw the party slowly and then emphatically cut loose from its labourist traditions, eventually coming to articulate and advance parts of a neoliberal agenda. No longer was Labour characterised by trade union power and influence, economism, sectionalism, an obedience and deference to parliamentarianism and the traditions of the British state, or the old fashioned, conservative, even gentlemanly, sense of Britishness that it had previously inhabited.

New Labour had shifted on all of these, onto new, alien terrain. Some of the old form and structures remained. For example, as Labour began to lose its new corporate business supporters and funders, scared off by ‘cash for honours’ and attracted by Cameron’s Conservatives, the party reverted back to its reliance on trade unions to provide most of the funding for the 2010 election campaign; but this could not make up for the previous decade and a half of ritual trade union humiliation and exclusion at the hands of New Labour.

Similarly, New Labour’s shift from parliamentarianism has only been commented upon in the most superficial manner, with most attention focused on Tony Blair’s disdain and contempt for Parliament. Instead, what is crucial has been New Labour’s wish to bypass the traditional institutions of democracy; dislike of representative democracy; and belief in an authoritarian populism of spin and public manipulation.11 New Labour represented a new kind of political force articulating a new kind of politics, one that was unconstrained by tradition, checks and balances.

New Labour had in this process become something else: a party of the post-democratic global classes, of the winners and ‘have-lots’ in British society, and for the dysfunctional influence of the City and finance capital. At the same time the party did also retain ambitions to retain within its broad church a concern and interest for those who were the losers and ‘have-nots’: part of this could be seen in a residual sense of progressive politics; another part was the ambition to create a new UK powerhouse, a UK plc where even the poorest would be lifted in the new land of opportunity and meritocracy.

This was a difficult alliance and balancing act to pull off, and has made the constantly evolving, nuanced message and identity of New Labour difficult to decipher. This was not ‘pure’ unadulterated neoliberalism, but then neither was Thatcher; instead it was a mix of a neoliberalism – which focused on the economic side – alongside elements of what can only be called social-democratic activities on the social side: you could call it ‘the free economy and the enabling state’.

To gauge how far we have travelled from the old certainties of Labour and labourism, it is instructive to go back to Marquand’s comments on the cultural codes which for a long time made up the party: ‘The labour movement was a product of the world of “us” against “them”, but it existed to protect “us” against the injustices perpetuated by “them”, not to enable “us” to join “them”, and still less to replace “them” by “us”.12 This world has been almost completely swept away. It is true it still exists within parts of the trade union movement, and in some of the constituencies and communities of Labour Britain, but such sentiments no longer inform the dominant governing codes of the party leadership or the main body politic of the Labour Party. Indeed, it is interesting to note that those once omnipresent terms, ‘the labour movement’ and ‘this great movement of ours’, have fallen into near complete disuse. New Labour no longer saw the world in the terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Instead it invoked an inclusive, forward-looking, thinking and aspiring ‘Britain plc’, in which we were all part of a collective effort – ‘Team GB’ as it is inaccurately called – to promote, project and compete for the national interest in an economic and social Darwinist version of the Olympic Games.

Whereas formerly Labour was a party of ‘us’ against ‘them’, and against any idea of ‘us’ joining or replacing ‘them’, New Labour has been about dissolving the boundaries and distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘For the many not the few’ was the limp New Labour attempt to acknowledge the Old Labour values, but this has had increasingly less currency as the implications of the Blair-Brown era have sunk in. The last minute coda, ‘A future fair for all’, was a decent election campaign theme, but it clearly met with derision due to the legacy of record inequality under New Labour.13

New Labour and the limits of labourism

Part of the reason for New Labour’s transformation into this new political expression is the nature of labourism. Given that Labour was never a socialist or a social-democratic party, but instead was a force for expressing and representing the labour interest, once this constituency began to decline there was less clarity about the nature of Labour’s ethos, the people it sought to represent and speak for, and its purpose.

The 1964 and 1974 Labour governments clearly and visibly showed the deep-seated crisis of labourism; ‘In Place of Strife’ and ‘the winter of discontent’ illustrated a growing divergence between the party leadership and its trade union wing. Bennism was one response to this crisis, with its re-emphasis of the dominance of the trade union movement and labour over capital; the other response led directly to the creation of New Labour.

The slowly unfolding demise of labourism allowed the conditions to develop which led to the creation and success of New Labour. Moreover, since Labour had never in its history actually been a socialist or social-democratic party, as the high tide of labourism receded it left behind a landscape that offered the opportunity for neoliberalism to emerge as the dominant credo of the party leadership. These two crucial points are intimately connected.

First, the long retreat, unravelling and death of labourism as a grand narrative means that there is no prospect of going back to a politics that is based on its tenets; nor is there any point in a left nostalgia for an age of class certainties and deference to trade union power. The present world may seem more fluid, uncertain and disorientated at times, but it is too late to start lamenting a culture that in any case many found oppressive, chauvinist, tribalist and anti-pluralist. It should be remembered that in the yesteryear of labourism’s zenith, its politics was shaped by insularity, and a suspicion of all those outside Labour’s boundaries, from Liberals to Scottish and Welsh Nationalists and progressives in no party; the only partial exception, historically and culturally, was the Communist Party of Great Britain, seen by some as part of ‘the labour movement’.

Second, New Labour has fundamentally altered the nature and purpose of Labour; it became a party centred on post-labourism, which then made the open embracing and advocacy of neoliberalism possible. The  lack of any credible progressive alternative allowed New Labour to become one of the leading centre-left parties to advance neoliberalism, an experience it shared with other centre-left parties in the English speaking world: the American Democrats, Australian Labor and New Zealand Labour. These parties have advanced what could be charitably called a politics of ‘the near-left’.

Labour after New Labour

What then will become of Labour after the New Labour experience? New Labour was not, as some still claim, a temporary phenomenon, or a ‘coup’ against progressive forces within the party by some counter-revolutionary elite guard. It was a carefully thought-out response to the economic, social and political forces of British society and capitalism, an attempt by the Labour leadership to make their accommodation with the forces of globalisation, and to align Labour with the most powerful vested interests and forces of power and privilege in the UK (the City, Murdoch press), and in so doing to make the Labour Party a key part of the ruling elite.

There was a deep strand of opinion in the party which went along with the New Labour analysis: and there was a long period of gestation for the whole modernisation project of Blair, Brown and Mandelson. It began in ‘the soft left’ of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee and, intellectually, in the ideas of Marxism Today, and only subsequently morphed into something hideous and anti-progressive. (cut) This was not something that developed over night. And what comes after New Labour will also need to be shaped by the knowledge that we live in an age of post-labourism, with all the advantages and disadvantages that spring from this.

For all its undoubted faults and limitations, labourism did provide a kind of anchor and set of reference points for Labour, which provided a way for the party leadership and trade unions to understand the world, and a common language and set of values. What could a Labour politics shorn of labourism look like that does not have the shape and character of New Labour?

The British Labour Party has been written off many times, and its obituary read. And yet tales of its death have been greatly exaggerated. A party that could only win 16 per cent of the UK vote in the 2009 Euro elections, when it finished third in the vote and equal in seats with UKIP, has shown a remarkable ability for resilience and perseverance. Despite all the short-term crises Labour has faced in the Brown premiership, and the longer-term crises of the gathering economic and political storms, the 2010 British general election underlined the permanence of Labour as a significant force on the electoral stage. Any future progressive politics has to have Labour as one of its central agents. The prospect of a realignment of the left, with the Lib Dems replacing Labour as the main party of the centre-left (the main Liberal strategy since Jo Grimond in the 1960s), looks as unlikely today as it has for many years. Labour has tested its hold on a sizeable section of the British populace and the progressive imagination twice in a generation – in 1983 and 2010 – and has managed to survive both.

This will require some rethinking in Liberal Britain, but also in Labour Britain too. Fundamentally, the question needs to be answered: what does Labour stand for, what motivates the party’s ‘soul’, and what is the ‘utopia’ that animates party members?14 Post-socialism and post-social democracy – which filled the hearts of many Labour members down the years – what is the kind of society, at an ideal level and as an ultimate destination, that drives party activists?

That labourism has gone should be seen, overall, as a good thing, given its limitations, which have been catalogued and lambasted for years; people have been searching for a long time for an alternative radical and pluralist socialist politics. However, the first era of post-labourism has turned out to be disastrous for the centre-left and the values the Labour Party used to hold dear to its heart.

The development of a new post-labourist politics will require that centre-left thinkers and writers, and the wider community, abandon their illusions about Labour, and jettison any sense of romanticism and sentimentalism for its past. Myth, folklore and selective memory about its long retreat and numerous defeats are no substitute for critical thought. Although the Labour Party occasionally advanced socialist and more regularly social-democratic actions, and contained numerous people among its activist base for whom such values were part of their ‘utopia’, it was never a socialist or social democratic party. A ‘return’ to a politics of social democracy (given the absolute unlikelihood of any viable socialist politics) is therefore impossible.

It is no accident that the British Labour Party has been such a poor vehicle for the advancing of progressive ideals and values in its history. Never in its history has Labour succeeded in placing itself at the head of a wide British progressive coalition to remak British politics and society.

The myth of 1945 as the exception is the nearest Labour ever got, but the entire shift of public opinion, imagination and popular mobilisation actually occurred in ‘the people’s war’ and Labour’s experience of coalition with the Churchill government of 1940-5.  The two other moments when Labour had a progressive moment and blew it were 1964 and 1997. Wilson’s ‘New Britain’ and the first modernisation project were blown off course by serious weaknesses in the British economy, and the power of a whole host of conservative forces in society. Blair’s 1997 ‘progressive coalition’, which saw the articulation of the second ‘New Britain’, aimed to succeed by embracing the very institutions that had previously destabilised Labour in office, this time corrupting the whole character of the party.

It is symbolic of Labour’s record in office that of the four substantial periods of the party in office, only one has succeeded in any substantial degree of redistributing income and wealth, namely the 1945-51 Attlee government. And even here, given that the period over which this can be measured is 1938-49, it is probably a fair assessment that the main period of shifting income and wealth occurred during the Second World War, and not during the Attlee government.15 The 1964 and 1974 governments failed to make any headway, leaving Britain more unequal and less fair when they each left office.16 And the record of the Blair and Brown governments is singularly depressing: they left behind a Britain that was the fourth most unequal society in the OECD – with only Singapore, USA and Portugal more unequal.17

This pattern tells us something about the inability of Labour in office to fundamentally address the glaring inequalities, structural imbalances and dysfunctionalities within British society. Something is wrong at the heart of the historic Labour project.

Any longer-term assessment of Labour after the dust of the 2010 defeat settles needs to address itself to all these questions. After thirteen years of Labour in office, the longest period of majority Labour government in the party’s history, progressives find themselves in an inhospitable terrain. The scale of the New Labour disaster, at home and internationally, is such that we need to honestly look beyond the immediate post-election environment. The Labour politicians who embraced neoliberalism, deregulation and marketisation are now likely to start mouthing left soundbites and engaging in posturing. But it is crucial that the longer story of Labour and its failures is examined, and the question asked: what does the emergence of New Labour tell us about the character of Labour, and what do we do now that a party of the labour interest is no longer feasible?


1. Theodore Rothstein, ‘What is socialism in England at a discount?’ [1898], later published in From Chartism to Labourism: Historical Sketches of the English Working Class Movement, Martin Lawrence 1929.

2. Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality, Penguin 1970 edn.

3. Perry Anderson, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review 23, 1964, p43; Tom Nairn, ‘The Nature of the Labour Party I’, New Left Review 27, 1964, p39.

4. John Saville, ‘Labourism and the Labour Government’, in Ralph Miliband and John Saville (eds), The Socialist Register 1967, Merlin Press 1967, p67.

5. Tom Nairn, ‘The Left Against Europe’, New Left Review 75, 1972, pp49-50.

6. Andy Newman, ‘The Labourist Tradition’, Soundings 44, Spring 2010; Andrew Pearmain, ‘Pieces of Labourism and the “fascist possibility” in English Politics’, n.d.,

7. David Marquand, The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair, Phoenix Giant 1999, p17.

8. Henry Drucker, Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, George Allen and Unwin 1979.

9. James Cronin, New Labour’s Pasts: The Labour Party and its Discontents, Pearson Longman 2004, p 8.

10. Richard Crossman, Introduction to Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution, 1963 edn.

11. Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Class, Simon and Schuster 2007.

12. Marquand, Progressive Dilemma, p22.

13. A Future Fair For All, Labour Party 2010; Danny Dorling, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists, Policy Press 2010.

14. Gerry Hassan, ‘The Next Left: Life after the Labour Party’, OpenDemocracy, 21.9.08,

15. R.H. Tawney, Equality, George Allen and Unwin 1952 edn.

16. Peter Townsend and Nicholas Bosanquet (eds), Labour and Inequality, Fabian Society 1972; Nicholas Bosanquet and Peter Townsend (eds), Labour and Equality: A Fabian Study of Labour in Power, Heinemann 1980.

17. Dorling, Injustice.

[-1]we try not to start articles with indented quotes as it looks messy

[-2]‘long tail’ is wrong word, since it means something that comes along behind, not something that leads up to something

[-3]my preference over the misleading term ‘developed’