What Happens When Labour Falls from Power
The Scotsman, June 9th 2009
Labour is in an historic crisis. It has been pummelled in the council and Euro elections. Gordon Brown’s Premiership hangs on a loose thread. A wider existential crisis now faces Labour about its purpose, who it represents and its future.
Labour Government’s have faced huge crises before and faced into the abyss. They have experienced division and fratricide and ultimately been defeated at the polls. In post-war times three Labour Governments have fallen from power, 1951, 1970 and 1979, each of which offer lessons for today.
In 1951 after the Attlee administration fell from office, the party was plunged into a battle between the Gaitskellite right and Bevanite left. The Gaitskellites wanted Labour to modernise, drop nationalisation and emphasise redistribution. The Bevanites stressed the need for a more traditional approach and extending nationalisation.
The Gaitskellites are seen by some as the precursors of the Blairites – the former trying after Labour’s third defeat in 1959 to abandon Clause Four – something Blair finally accomplished in 2005. The Gaitskellites talked of changing the name of the party to embrace the middle classes and aspiration; the Blairites did it creating ‘New Labour’. This comparison is unfair to the Gaitskellites who are like left-wingers compared to the Blairites with their emphasis on public spending redistribution and greater equality.
Labour’s defeat in 1970 saw the beginning of the party move significantly to the left with the adoption of detailed socialist policies to nationalise and regulate the private sector which Labour were elected on in 1974. This promised famously, ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift’ to working people, and while Denis Healey promised to ‘squeeze the rich until the pips squeak’, the party abandoned most of its radical policies in office.
The defeat of the Callaghan Government and election of Thatcher in 1979 unleashed the bitterest civil war seen in the party’s history. The Bennite left, enraged by the Wilson-Callaghan Government’s abandonment of its 1974 manifesto, engaged in a new kind of politics. Not content with adopting radical policies which a future leadership might abandon, they embarked in a cultural and political revolution to transform Labour, making the leader accountable to the whole party, and all MPs having to undergo mandatory selection by their local parties. At the time this was seen in the media as an assault on democracy, when it was a generational challenge to the privileges of the Westminster class, and now one that looks far-sighted.
The stress lines of this led to the most traumatic split in Labour history since Ramsay MacDonald joined the Tories in 1931, with Roy Jenkins and David Owen forming the SDP and contributing to Thatcher’s triumphant re-election in 1983.
What picture emerges from Labour’s experience of going into opposition? Firstly, for all Labour’s problems on these three occasions, there was then an element of energy and dynamism within the party. Labour represented significant parts and groups of Britain. The party that lost office in 1951 had well over one million individual members; now it has just over 150,000: many of them disillusioned and inactive. It is unclear whether the party has the energy left to engage in any meaningful post-election debate.
Secondly, while the party has usually gone through bitter conflicts after losing office, these have become defined not just about policies, but personalities. The Gaitskellite/Bevanite divide, originally right versus left, became one about tribes and individuals. The rise of the Bennite left became for many about whether they could trust or did not trust Tony Benn. The story of the Blairites versus the Brownites has become enmeshed in personality. Were the Brownites ever really more left; if they were once, this does not have any real meaning now.
All of the party’s returns to opposition were influenced by a sense of disappointment about what Labour had just achieved and not achieved in office. It is difficult to fathom now but in the immediate aftermath of the 1945 administration, many Labour supporters were filled with a sense of disillusion about its record, due to its lack of radicalism and conservatism. The myth of 1945 grew as subsequent Labour Governments even more conspicuously failed.
The Wilson-Callaghan Governments were seen for years as synonymous with failure and betrayal. And then came the New Labour revolution. Gifted a period of unprecedented economic prosperity for a Labour Government, the Blair/Brown era has blown it completely. It has failed to remake the political weather, instead following in Thatcherism’s footsteps, and has presided over grotesque levels of wealth and inequality and the humiliation of our democracy. Taking on board the disasterous foreign policy decisions of Blair ‘hugging Bush’ which took us to war with Iraq, this must be seen as the most disasterous, right-wing Labour Government in history.
This is the background to Labour’s future in opposition. What does Labour stand for? How can social democratic values be salvaged from the wreckage of a government which embraced big business, greed and corruption? What are those ‘Labour values’ that Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears invoked last week?
Labour are heading for humiliation in the next year, and what happens after that could involve the final breaking up and end of a party which has many achievements to its name, but which never broke the stranglehold of conservative Britain. Labour has never been an effective, radical vehicle for progressive values in its history. Once the party was shaped by trade union power and a labourist, ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture. Under Blair, this culture was denigrated and marginalised, and an even more offensive obsequious celebration of acquisitiveness and wealth put in its place. The defeat of Labour at the next election is the end of a chapter of centre-left politics, and the start of a new one which could be very different, more pluralist and effective. Gordon Brown could yet turn out to be a radical, presiding over the end of Labour Britain.