UK Politics

The question at the core of Labour Party identity

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Differences of principle should be expected in the Labour Party. With over half a million members, it is hardly surprising that there are conflicts. But the devil is in the detail, and what can seem a minor ideological difference can often have a large impact on policies. The question that Labour must answer is: should they offer radical policy and risk not being elected, or moderate their policy?

If the Party offers radical socialist policies, aimed at collective ownership and economic equality, they could risk alienating voters. On the other hand, if they moderate their policies, simply aiming at minor redistribution, they are doing a disservice by not tackling the huge problems that people face.

Since assuming the leadership of the Labour Party, Corbyn has faced fierce resistance from those on the right of the Party. Ostensibly, the second leadership contest was in response to Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm in the Remain campaign. In reality, the attempted coup was a consequence of conflict between the right of the Party and the resurgent left. 

However, the conflict between the left and right of the Party is not new. After their landslide victory of 1945, Labour nationalised 20% of the economy, including the NHS, the Bank of England, steel, coal and other vital industries. Undoubtedly, this was a considerable achievement, particularly considering this happened as the country recovered from the Second World War. However, it can still be debated today whether this was the beginning of a democratic revolution or merely an attempt to fix some of the problems existing within capitalism.

In theory, such policies adhere to Fabian reformist socialism, whereby the aim is to gradually transition from capitalism to socialism. But after a few years in government, it can be hard to tell the difference the between politicians who wish to make minor reforms and those who wish to make large ones, but in the long term.

In 1956, Anthony Crosland challenged the traditional ideology of Labour in his book The Future of Socialism. He argued that because capitalism had changed so much since the origins of socialism, socialism also had to adapt and change. It received mixed reviews, and is either celebrated as an integral part of Labour Party thinking or questioned as anti-socialist. Despite the controversy, revisionist texts like this were hugely influential as the Labour Party became less socialist and more social-democratic. The 2006 reprint of the book even contained a foreword written by Gordon Brown.

The ideology of the Party has shifted throughout its history. Following the economic crisis of the 1970s, and Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister in 1979, the socialists of the Party succeeded in the election of Michael Foot as leader in 1980. This work was undone after the election of Neil Kinnock. The moderation of the Party continued under John Smith and culminated with New Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair. The symbolic moment took place in 1995 when a Party conference changed Clause IV of the constitution. This removed their dedication to ‘common ownership of the means of production’, effectively removing any practical dedication to socialism.

Returning to the present, this trend has been reversed. During the 2015 leadership eection, Corbyn expressed support for either restoring Clause IV or rewriting it again. Furthermore, the popularity of nationalisation policies, such as those in the 2017 Labour Party manifesto, has successfully brought socialism back to the forefront. Party membership cards have continued to state that it is a democratic socialist party, although the truth is always less concise. It is now clear that there has been a resurgence of socialism in the Party. This shift cannot be entirely attributed to Corbyn, as his own success is a result of it.

Today, the left of the Labour Party is dominant and has achieved some considerable victories. These include the considerable margin of Corbyn’s leadership win, granting him a clear mandate for a socialist platform. Among the growing grassroots, there is a sense that the policies offered by the right of the party failed to challenge the systemic flaws of capitalism. Nonetheless, it would be presumptuous to say that socialism will remain dominant in the Labour Party.

Therefore, we return to the question at the core of the Party’s identity. Would it be a greater disservice to risk not being elected by offering radical policies, or to offer moderated policies and not tackle the fundamental problems that plague society today? If Labour is not elected within the next few years, people will be exposed to further austerity and the most vulnerable will be harmed. However, if Labour is elected on a moderated platform, they risk not solving the immense problems of the 21st century, which require radical solutions. Wherever a member stands in that debate, it is one that shapes the ideological identity of the Labour Party.

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