In 1900, Britain’s organised workers – tired of the two major political parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, acting in the interests of greedy bosses – formed their own party to represent this labour workforce and the working class mass majority of Britain’s population: the Labour Party. After World War II, a time framed by Keynesian […]

In 1900, Britain’s organised workers – tired of the two major political parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, acting in the interests of greedy bosses – formed their own party to represent this labour workforce and the working class mass majority of Britain’s population: the Labour Party.

After World War II, a time framed by Keynesian thinking, the Labour Party created the welfare state with over 200% debt of GDP, compared to a debt of 60% today. This achievement is something the current Labour leadership have drawn upon when criticising the government’s current slash and burn approach, who – despite rhetoric of “it’s Labour’s fault” – have actually borrowed more than Labour planned to. Furthermore, the ConDem government, when attacking the welfare state and the public sector at large, conveniently ignores how private debt was converted into public debt through a £1.5 trillion bank bailout.

In 1978, the legendary Jack Jones – fighter against fascism both abroad in the Spanish Civil War, and at home in opposing Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts – retired as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, and the upheaval in the union arguably contributed to the strain in negotiations between the workforce and the government, at the time led by Labour. The damage of the “Winter of Discontent,” a time when rubbish went uncollected in the streets and the dead went unburied as workers continued to strike, irrevocably hurt Labour, who made way for Margaret Thatcher’s Tories and their ultimately opportunistic attack on the unions, Thatcher’s “enemy within.”

Meanwhile, Neil Kinnock softened his support for striking miners as their coal industry and its dependent communities were decimated for daring to be unionised, leading to social deprivation that largely lasts to this day. Kinnock was set to win in 1992 – famously announcing “We’re alright!” in Sheffield as voting day approached – only for Rupert Murdoch’s media to mobilise with scaremongering and, after the unexpected and marginal Tory, declare “It’s The Sun wot won it.”

That Labour had shown lack of spine during this time was a fact not convenient for those in the party wishing to be in power. Instead of displaying critical thinking while still standing up for the common worker, Tony Blair and his New Labour project removed Clause 4 from the party’s constitution, a clause which adhered to the principle of state ownership of key industries. Blair courted favour with Murdoch, whose media in turn supported Blair, even through the crimes of the Iraq war. That Labour introduced progressive taxation, a minimum wage, boosted funding for communities, culture, small businesses, and presided over one of the greatest periods of sustained economic performance in British history, can be accredited to the grassroots Labour membership and those progressive politicians who lobbied hard for things that were never dreamed of under Tory rule.

But New Labour was never going to be sustainable. It was apparent with each re-election that the working-class majority were staying at home rather than supporting Labour. Blair’s subsequent re-elections saw him gain fewer votes than Kinnock did as loser in 1992.

Given the welfare state is under serious attack from the Coalition government, the development of Blue Labour within the Labour Party – which is critical of Labour’s support for the state, the
welfare state and the trade union connection – is in danger of undermining Labour’s best achievements through another attempted project, diverting attention from the core values of the party – written clearly on Labour’s membership card – without a clear policy prescription or direction. For Lord Glasman, the architect of “Blue Labour”, to then argue that Labour’s 1945 victory and its nationalisation project was “the trigger for Labour’s long-term decline” is dangerous and self-defeating.

Despite there being some good ideas within Blue Labour, they aren’t new to Labour’s central ethos. At a time when welfare spending is victim to scaremongering, and benefits such as Disability Living Allowance are being ideologically destroyed alongside trade union rights, should a Labour Party with a history of protecting the vulnerable and standing up for social justice be playing into an ideology that attacks the state, the idea of equality and fundamental rights to a welfare state?

There are really good movements within Labour, recognising its faults under the New Labour government – including an admission by John Cruddas (in charge of reviewing Labour’s policy) that the Work Capacity Assessments are not fit for purpose. These movements need to be encouraged, promoted and supported, while remembering that the base of Labour is the same as it always has been: socialist.

Jane Watkinson & Jay Baker.