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On Labour’s lack of ideology

Labour, it has been said, only occasionally feels the need to take its ideologists seriously. Yes, there have been occasions in which the party has set out a theoretical stall and then tried to justify its political practice with reference to it. But historically speaking, such periods have been comparatively rare.

Examples include Morrisonian nationalisation in the 1940s, Gaitskellite revisionism in the 1950s, Wilson and the technocrats in the 1960s and Bennism in the late 70s and early 80s. This list deliberately excludes sundry minority currents – such as Christian pacifism, fellow travelling with the CPGB, and Trotskyism – which have always been present, without even coming close to attaining dominance.

There has also been a longstanding ‘default position’ in the form of what might correctly be called Labourism proper, centred on such trade union concerns as higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions. More a set of assumptions than an articulated set of positions, this mode of thinking has never included any cohesive vision of a direction for society.

One effect of the rise of New Labourism was to wipe the slate clean. In many ways, 1994 was Labour’s Year Zero, with the emergence of Blairism severing almost all recognisable connections with the past, to a degree that even a reversion to Labourist basics now seems precluded.

Some 18 years later, what is clear is that the Third Way has run its course. Labour’s problem is that nothing has taken its place, leaving open the question of what it exists to do. In ideological terms, Labour is adrift. One of the many dangers of adopting a position of critical support for Ed Miliband is that he has yet to define adequately the stances in which he believes.

Attempts have been made to fill the vacuum, most conspicuously in the form of Blue Labour. But that particular set of platitudes has yet to encapsulate itself in a meaningful and easily summarised form that is demonstrably capable of mobilising widespread support.

Analogous conjunctures in the past have seen fresh political thinking outside of the Labour Party, throwing up tendencies such as syndicalism in the 1910s and the post-1956 New Left that have ultimately been reflected inside Labourism after a decade or two.

Some of those currently active in Occupy London and UK Uncut will no doubt gravitate towards Labour in ten or 20 years’ time. If Labour were really open to the influences of wider society, such influences would already be felt. That doesn’t seem to me to be the case right now.

Does any of this matter? Optimists will hope that the Coalition will be rejected by the electorate at the next available opportunity, as the impact of their Austerian policies in the face of capitalist crisis progressively makes itself felt.

Unless anything changes between now and the day that Ed Miliband is doing that photo opportunity thing in front of the famous black front door of Number Ten, the slate will be blank. When radicalism is called for, that will not constitute an auspicious start.

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