What is, or was, the Labour Party for?

A comment on a recent post posed a formidable challenge:

Not so long ago, I remember asking you 'What is the Labour Party for?' 'Twas not a rhetorical nor, I hope, a totally silly question and it still awaits an answer… Old Labour, New Labour, whichever, I have despaired of it for years, though in a 'pure' form I would support it. My problem is that successive Labour governments and leaders (from Wislon onwards) have, for me, so befogged that purity that I now have only the (inevitably!) haziest idea of what I once thought that I believed in. The Iraq adventure was the penultimate straw, and then came Brown… What could possibly persuade me to vote Labour again? Whatever Labour might have been 'for' in the past, what now? What in essence is the philosophical stance that Labour should proclaim? 

….I hope I'm not slipping into old professional habits and requesting an essay! Just a straightforward and very brief paragraph, say?

To save unnecessary agonies of meditation and composition, here, with minor editing, is an extract from an earlier post on this blog:

It's true that the Labour Party under Blair and now, apparently, Brown, has moved far to the right, occupying considerable territory once the preserve of the Tories, while Cameron is sporadically trying to drag the Conservatives kicking and screaming towards some limited areas once occupied by Labour; but that doesn't make them indistinguishable, and it's an indolent cop-out to pretend that there's now nothing to choose between the main party of the left and the main party of the right.  It's still true, as always, that in general, and despite multiple backslidings, the left stands for maximum equality of outcomes and not just of opportunity: for a positive and proactive role for the state's authority at every level in promoting social justice and prosperity and not for uncontrolled laissez-faire individualism: for protecting the weakest and most vulnerable against the interests of big business, privilege and property: for putting reform and progressive change ahead of continuity, stability, or preservation of the status quo:  for internationalism rather than narrow nationalism:  for due process and the rule of law, human rights and individual liberty, even if necessary at some cost to security and social discipline;  freedoms and responsibilities, but above all freedom.  And in general the political right stands for the opposite of all those things.

To this should be added that a true party of the left supports the rule of law in international affairs as represented by the Charter of the United Nations, and opposes the use of force in international relations except in self-defence or when explicitly authorised by the UN Security Council;  regards national and international action to relieve poverty, ignorance and disease in poor countries as being at least as urgent a priority (if not a more urgent one) as the relief of poverty, ignorance and disease in our own country;  recognises climate change as an immediate threat to the future of the planet and accepts the need for urgent international action, if necessary at the expense of the living standards of the rich and the relatively rich, to minimise its effects;  believes that business and the City have obligations to others besides their shareholders, including their customers, suppliers, employees and society generally, and that these should at last be recognised in law; wishes to end the over-centralisation of the government of Britain by devolving more extensive powers to all the four nations of the United Kingdom and beyond them to local authorities, counties and cities, towns and villages, parishes and wards, so that responsibility always resides at the lowest and most local level possible, and the authority to whom an aggrieved citizen turns first is the local mayor or parish councillor, not an MP in distant Westminster — even if this results in unequal standards in different parts of the country;  is strongly opposed to anything likely to lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom and is prepared to go to almost any lengths in further devolution and power-sharing to avert it (subject only to the commitment that has been given to all the people of Ireland, north and south);  recognises that our foreign policy objectives can be better and more effectively achieved when we act as a fully participating member of the European Union than by seeking to act alone;  regards the EU as an overwhelmingly positive dimension of our international activities and as an indispensable instrument for positive change;  and is not afraid to say that the word which encapsulates all these values, aims and priorities is socialism

This reference to equality of outcomes in the earlier piece prompted a lively discussion in comments, to which this was the reply:

Of course no-one, even the most Utopian, advocates total equality of wealth and income for all; but if there’s to be any justice and humanity in the way society is ordered – real respect for “the equal worth of all” [a phrase used approvingly by Tony Blair] – it’s essential that the state should intervene actively in the economy to minimise the gross inequalities which ‘equality of opportunity’, market forces, flexibility in the labour market, and the rest of the capitalist shibboleths automatically produce.

It seems to me that gross and blatant inequality, whether of income, wealth, educational and cultural access, health, life expectancy, everyday living conditions, personal security, or any of the other elements that together constitute the opportunity to enjoy the right to the pursuit of happiness, disfigures the society in which it occurs: creates tensions and divisions which threaten social peace and stability: condemns its victims to material and cultural deprivation: and leads to all the other evils so accurately predicted by Michael Young…. The unavoidable corollary of this is that we should pay at least as much attention to the greatest possible equality of outcomes as we do to equality of opportunity. Whether we speak of aiming at the greatest practicable degree of equality in all fields, or of pre-empting or eliminating as far as may be practicable the inequalities which flow from equality of opportunity, the principle is the same. My charge is that New Labour, in its effective dismissal of equality of outcomes and its commitment to equality of opportunity and a meritocracy, doesn’t understand any of this, and that its position belongs on the right of the political spectrum and not on the left. As Anthony Crosland argued long ago, the concept of equality is central to the modern interpretation of socialism.

[In reply to this, the question was raised what in more concrete terms was meant by greater equality of outcomes as a central objective of the left:]  Action to promote equality (and to remove unnecessary inequality) is needed all the time in every sphere of government activity: there’s no snake oil or magic bullet. But a good symbolic start would be to increase the marginal rate of income tax on all incomes over, say, £100,000 a year, take a million low earners out of any income tax obligation, and scrap many of the current allowances that benefit mainly top earners.  (Actually there are cogent if counter-intuitive arguments for a flat rate tax with no allowances at all but with a starting-point set high enough to exclude many more from any tax obligation and the rate set at a level that would actually be sharply progressive, i.e. redistributive and pro-equality, in its effects…) We might also consider legislation to impose a maximum percentage gap between the highest and lowest salaries (including benefits in kind) paid to employees, including managers at all levels, by companies above a certain size. But this is about more than simply incomes, or even incomes and wealth: it’s about the huge inequalities in quality of life, education, culture, and ability to realise one’s maximum potential (which is where it overlaps with ‘equality of opportunity’:  fine if it’s allied to pro-active measures to limit and minimise inequality of outcomes;  reactionary and retrograde if it's not). There are many desirable measures to address the problems of climate change that would have the incidental effect of reducing inequality. Removing the charitable status of private schools (so-called public schools) would be a good first step towards greater educational equality, although much more is needed there. No huge effort of imagination is needed to think of numerous other ways of moving towards the objective, if the will is there.

It would need a sizeable book to provide an adequate response to the challenge:  what is the Labour Party for, what used it to stand for, what is it for now?  But I hope this suggests at least a few preliminary answers.  Clive?


4 Responses

  1. John Langmore says:

    That description speaks to my condition, Brian.  Good on you for writing it.  I will save it for future use.  Warmest wishes,  John

  2. Clive Willis says:


    Many, many thanks!  You’ve expressed precisely what I would hope for: a classless,  peace-loving society in which the duty of the better-off towards the weaker and poorer is reinforced by the State through the elimination of ‘gross & blatant’ inequality, while recognizing that total equality is unattainable.

    How’s that for a brief paragraph? And, as you rightly say, how far Labour seems to have drifted from those ideals in practice (and even in theory, notably in the case of Blair). I would add that Labour’s bureaucratic insistence on a great plethora of targets, tasks and tests does much to nullify those objectives, as a life spent in education (both as academic and as Chair of school governors) and in health has taught me (I sat on a Health Authority as Vice-chair for 20 years and am still a Hospital Manager in Mental Health).

    Thanks again


  3. john says:

    Comment from Australia. There is no substantial difference between the Labor [No. It is not a misspelling] and the Liberal Parties on the issue of social and economic equality in Australia. Equality is no longer an issue, at least between the major Parties. Whether one calls it Thatcherism or economic rationalism, the values embodied in it have submerged social and economic equality as a goal in this country. Of course both Parties offer a policy of economic betterment to the less well-off — the'battlers' in Liberal terminology or 'working families' in Labor's but neither advance these policies in the name of equality. This was not always the case. Australia, a less class-structured society than England was, treated equality as part of its ethos. Whitlam Labor came to power in 1972 largely on equality as a dominant philosophy, especially in education. And indeed, although equality was most pronounced in Whitlam Labor, it was a shared value with the conservative Parties — their sharp differences were over State ownership and involvement in the economy and Trade Union power.

    But it would not be true to say that the Parties out here are indistinguishable. Principal differences, in no particular order, are:-

    (a) Rule of Law. It would not be possible to describe with any brevity the inroads made iby the previous government. The present government is taking steps to revert to principle. The irony is that this is really Burkean conservative and there is no inconsistency in Malcolm Fraser, a previous long serving Liberal Prime Minister, being one of the previous government's strongest critics in this field;

    (b) Engagement with the international community and support of the UN;

    (c) A reappraisal of the American Alliance so that we no longer automatically and abjectly adopt the American position;

    (d) Immigration controls which were brutally enforced have been made more humane and no less effective;

    (e) the protection of the environment and climate change in particular.

    Brian writes:  Thanks, John, for this Australian perspective.  As so often, much of what you say resonates quite strongly here in Britain.  But your comment illustrates how far to the right Blair and the rest of New Labour has taken the British Labour Party, to the point where neither of the papabile political parties can credibly embrace your 5-point programme:  we no longer have a left-of-centre party capable of forming a government.  What the right-of-centre Liberal [i.e. Conservative in UK parlance] government of John Howard did in Australia, now being corrected by an Australian Labor Party government, our own nominally left-of-centre "Labour" government under Blair and Brown has been doing here.   And even if the Labour Party finds enough courage to replace Gordon Brown before the next elections are due, there's no obvious alternative leader who could be relied on to commit himself or herself to adopt your five points.  You're a Lucky Country indeed! 

    (These observations don't apply altogether to your fifth point, on climate change.  It's not yet clear how far our two main parties differ from each other on this, in practical terms, especially when economic recession, rising food and energy prices and the credit crunch are sharply raising the political cost of effective measures to contain climate change.  I fear that neither party will risk being outflanked by the other by seeking to impose on an already hard-pressed electorate tough measures to reduce carbon emissions, if these are going to impinge on ordinary people's living standards and will therefore entail serious opposition and discontent.  The recession couldn't have come at a worse time.)

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