It is one of the more ridiculous claims of the Blairites that they represent a continuity with a long tradition within the Labour Party. Indeed Patrick Diamond wrote a silly book called New Labour’s Old Roots that sought to co-opt figures as diverse as Tawney, Durbin and Crosland as pre-cursors of Tony Blair.
In fact, the Labour Party has frequently needed to revise and reconfigure its political compass in response to changing events, that has confounded the divisions between left and right.
After the economic crash of 1929 the party had a long debate that led to the adoption of Keynesianism, and the rejection of the Party’s previous economic policy based upon the ideas of John Hobson.
The success of the 1945 government was its effective implementation of Labour’s prorgramme, and there was a resulting debate on what to do next; where neither the Gaitskellite revisionists nor the Bevanite traditionalists are easily identified by the tags of right and left in the context of the modern party.
The first Wilson government found that the Keynesian levers they sought to apply were relatively ineffective in a changed world where multi-national companies were beginning to be dominant. The left responded by a thorough reworking of the Party’s assumptions, leading to the economic programme adopted in 1973, and a summit with the TUC that agreed a number of reforms with the unions, such as what became the Health and Safety at Work Act.
The historical success of the Party has been based upon its willingness to reassess its mission based upon changed circumstances.
The current danger is that the Blairite party-within-a-party ‘Progress’ is seeking to prevent any radical debate about how Labour needs to respond to the changed world: they just want to party like it’s 1997.
The left currently lack any organisation vehicle for pursuing such a debate, but we are aligned with the aspirations of the major unions. That is a huge strength. Ed Miliband’s leadership also provides a real opportunity for the left to again find its feet within the party.
The tasks should be clear: firstly, we need to develop an electorally credible but radical programme for a Labour government, that can build a sufficiently broad coalition of support to convincingly win a general election. The left must associate itself totally with the project of winning back power as soon as possible.
To do that we need to consider the changed world we live in; where neo-liberal economics are discredited, where the locus of economic power is moving from the USA to China; and where the states that have best weathered the current economic crisis are arguably those who have sustained economic some sovereignty and retained a state owned footprint in the real economy.
This is challenging because continued participation in the EU is likely to remain both necessary and desirable, so constructive engagement with the EU is also likely to require a pan-European campaign against the neo-liberal assumptions now embedded into the EU.
The left now needs to be as bold as Ernest Bevin was in proposing Keynesianism to the Party, and as bold as Tony Crosland was with his publication of The Future of Socialism in 1956. Perhaps our aim should be, like Stuart Holland’s 1974 book The Socialist Challenge, to set the framework for how a government committed to egalitarianism and social justice could use the available levers of parliamentary power to harness our economy to benefit and empower the majority of working people.
The Labour Party needs to dream of being truly Labour again.