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Has the UK Labour Party stayed close to its roots?

The UK Labour Party was formed in 1900 and from its origins absorbed a number of influences:-

        It shared ideas with the radical wing of the Liberal Party such as Home Rule (devolution) for Ireland, reform of the House of Lords and the taxation of landowners’ profits.  In general elections before the First World War, Labour and the Liberals had an electoral pact.

Although much of the political context has now changed, Labour did pursue some of the constitutional reforms that the Liberal Government had failed to complete before 1914. Labour removed almost all hereditary peers from the House of Lords but failed to agree on the composition of a new upper house.  Devolution was extended to Scotland and Wales.  Until Clegg became Leader, the Liberal Democrats were closer to Labour than the Conservatives.

        The basic socialist view that the capitalist system and profit led to the exploitation of workers, derived from Marx’s analysis of the economy, and should be replaced by common ownership of all aspects of the economic system became part of Labour’s ideas.  The Labour Party Constitution of 1918 included a commitment to ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’.  Although these ideas were stronger on the left of the Party, a wide range of Labour politicians in the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s believed that the capitalist system was in decline and would inevitably be replaced by a different system.

As part of the post-war settlement the Labour leadership accepted the capitalist system and sought to redistribute wealth within it.

Tony’s Crosland’s book, The Future of Socialism, was very influential and argued that modern capitalism, controlled by managers rather than owners, sought efficiency rather than maximum profits.  The Blair Governments went further and looked for entrepreneurs to create wealth that would pay for the public sector, without even the need to tax the rich to help the poor. At two periods Labour began to lose faith in capitalism. First, after the rapid inflation and increased unemployment in the early 1970s which led to the idea, in the 1983 manifesto, of State intervention to plan key sectors of the economy.  Second, after the banking crisis of 2008 which revived ideas in the Labour Party that capitalism was inherently unstable but without clear ideas as to how this could be countered, especially as the control over the economy exercised by nation states was now much more limited than in the 1930s or 1970s. After the nationalisations of the Labour Government between 1945 and 1951, Labour did little to extend public ownership and the Blair Government even carried out minor privatisations such as air traffic control. The election of Jeremy Corby as Labour Leader, in 2015, may lead the party to change direction, as he has raised the possibility of renationalising the railways and basic utilities, such as electricity and water, but his other ideas are state led investment in infrastructure to promote growth, similar to the 2010 Labour manifesto and an expansionist monetary policy.

        The Labour Party was created partly by industrial trade unions who wanted a voice in Parliament.  This gave Labour a concern with issues such as trade union rights, conditions of work and improving wages.  Although socialist ideas began to develop with the trade unions by 1900, many trade union leaders were moderate or conservative in their views and many of their members voted Conservative.

The trade union movement is now much weaker than when Labour was created. Industrial employment in areas such as coal, steel and engineering  which produced the members for the strongest trade unions has drastically declined and been replaced by non-unionised employment such as call centres and tourism.  There are still 7m union members though and nearly 6m of these are in unions affiliated to the Labour Party which are important within the party organisation. After the Blair period, in which the trade unions were largely ignored, the relationship with the Labour leadership has been closer and they took part in Labour’s Policy Review which was the basis for the 2015 manifesto.

        After 1918, Labour cam to be seen as the party of the working class, even though many workers continued to vote Conservative and Liberal.  This led Labour to be concerned with working class problems such as poor housing and health and poor educational opportunities and develop social policies to improve these.

There was never a clear working class/Labour and middle class/Conservative pattern of voting in the past but there is evidence that there has been a class dealignment in voting with Labour securing less of the manual worker vote, though it remains well ahead of the Conservatives in support from unskilled workers.  The working class is also smaller than in the past and more varied, ranging from the skilled well-paid engineering worker to the poorly paid care worker and these different groups may not share the same interests so that it is difficult for Labour to appeal to them all. There is a feeling though that Labour, with hardly any working class MPs and with weaker roots and less members in working class areas, has lost the trust of these various groups, some of whom voted UKIP in the last election.

        The intellectuals of the Fabian Society gave Labour a tradition of analysing social and economic problems and proposing detailed solutions.  This gave most of the Labour Party a belief that a Labour Government would be able to gradually reform the system by legislation and through control of the Government Departments in a top down way.  This distinguished Labour sharply from Trotskyite and Communist parties that believed that change could only come through a revolution overthrowing the capitalist system.

Labour has always remained a reformist party, seeking to develop detailed policy solutions and carry them out through winning Parliamentary elections. Think tanks such IPPR and the New Local Government Network have been influential within the party.  One of the biggest effects of the 2015 leadership election campaigns is to create the potential for a larger grassroots membership party that has the potential to develop ideas from the bottom up.

        Many of the early Labour leaders were brought up in the Nonconformist churches and Nonconformist ideas of obligation to society and looking after the poor gave Labour ideas an ethical character.  Uncontrolled capitalism was seen as having evil effects by increasing inequality and poverty and it was the duty of Labour to change this.

Labour remains a party in which ethical language about the need to look after the poor, create a just society, promote human rights around the world or seek international agreements is used to appeal to party members and the wider electorate. The Conservatives are portrayed, however unfairly, as only concerned with particular narrow interests.

Therefore, although socialist ideas were part of the Labour Party tradition, it was never a clearly left wing party.  Its leaders mostly tried to lead from the centre and balance the various factions in the party.   In any case the two Labour Governments before 1939 were short lived and did not have a majority in Parliament to make significant changes.  Labour was, though, strongly rooted in the trade unions and working class communities but this has weakened. Even though Jeremy Corbyn has been elected as a Leader from the left he will still need to manage the various groups in the party.