Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Labour: getting back to its roots. But which roots?

“The only lesson to learn from history,” to paraphrase the German philosopher Hegel, “is that no one learns any lessons from history.”

In the course of the great debate over the leadership that is currently rocking the UK Labour Party, the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn frequently tell me that we need to get the party back to its roots. It’s because we’ve abandoned them for the last forty years – a precise figure quoted to me on Twitter, though what specifically happened in 1976 I’m not quite sure – that we’re in the mess today.

It never strikes me as a particularly good approach to call for a move “back to” some set of values. John Major, British Prime Minister between 1992 and 1997, Thatcher’s successor, launched a “back to basics” programme that was criticised even within his own party. Generally, it’s best to be moving forward and getting ready to deal with the next set of challenges, for which we’re likely to need different attitudes than worked when we faced the last.

Still, even in a forward-looking process, it’s useful to to see if we can at least learn enough from the past not to make the same mistakes again. Perhaps being aware of our roots might be a more useful approach than getting back to them. However, if we’re to do that well, we need at least to make sure we’re remembering them correctly. A mythical past isn’t going to help us at all in planning our future. It would be a pity to go back to the wrong roots, wouldn’t it?

What, then, were the roots of the Labour Party?

The great historic leader of the early days, and Labour’s first MP, was James Keir Hardie. He died long before Labour had its first chance to form a government, but he had among his advisers a young man, full of fine rhetoric and powerful views, who would lead Labour in government for the first time: Ramsay MacDonald was an early intellectual of the party and one of its most effective voices. He had principles too, and stuck to them: he was a pacifist and nothing could persuade him to back Britain’s involvement in the First World War. So, though he was one of the earliest Labour MPs, elected in 1906, he paid the price for his beliefs, losing his parliamentary seat in the elections at the end of the war.

Ramsay MacDonald: watered the roots of the Labour Party
But it didn’t end well, did it?
MacDonald came back, though, leading the first two Labour governments. Sadly, his second administration took office in 1929 and had to deal with the Great Depression. MacDonald, man of principle, thinker, left-winger, champion of the socialist cause, decided that was needed was a sound-money policy and reduced public spending. So he slashed unemployment benefit, to the fury and dismay of his Labour colleagues. In order to cling on to power, he formed a coalition with the Conservatives and remained Prime Minister, at the head of a government dominated by the party he’d always opposed, until 1935.

Are those the roots we’re supposed to get back to?

To be fair, when people talk about the Labour Party’s roots, they’re much more likely to be thinking of the great, reforming post-World War 2 government led by Clement Attlee. In particular, they’re probably thinking about one member of that government: Aneurin ‘Nai’ Bevan, founder of the NHS. They probably don’t remember that when someone mentioned to Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the same government, that Nai was his own worst enemy, Bevin growled back “not while I’m alive, he ain’t.”

Nai Bevan, father of the NHS. Much easier to get enthusiastic about.
As long as you’re not too worried abut nuclear disarmament.
Actually, that’s one of those stories that comes up again and again in different contexts, with different speakers. Another version has Bevin saying it about a different fellow Minister, Herbert Morrison. Then again, it was apparently said of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by his fellow Democrat “Cotton” Ed Smith. What all these versions have in common, though, is that they all reflect deeply destructive internal divisions in parties of the centre-left.

Sadly, we’re in exactly the same position today, but surely again this isn’t where we want to be, is it?

Much more significant than any comment of Bevin’s on Bevan, though, is a remark of Bevan’s himself. Jeremy Corbyn has made himself a bit of a name by his resistance to the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile programme. Interestingly, for a man and a member of a movement that swears by the sanctity of party decisions, he took that stance against Labour policy. He nonetheless enjoyed widespread support among his fan base, who tend to be pretty keen on Bevan too. So perhaps they need to ponder the words Nai spoke at the Labour Conference of 1957, during the debate on unilateral nuclear disarmament:

I knew this morning that I was going to make a speech that would offend and even hurt many of my friends. I know that you are deeply convinced that the action you suggest is the most effective way of influencing international affairs. I am deeply convinced that you are wrong. It is therefore not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed. It is the most difficult of all problems facing mankind. But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications and do not run away from it you will send a Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber… You call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.

Curious, isn’t it? That a past idol of the left referred to the policies espoused to the policies of today’s idol of the left as an “emotional spasm.”

So – are those the roots we’re supposed to be getting back to?


Anonymous said...

The past is the past, what about the future?

David Beeson said...

The future is what we should be looking at. Which is why I distrust the cry to "get back to our roots."

The Corbyn campaign seems to get the worst of all worlds: a fixation with how things once were, but in a mythical, misunderstood past; and a refusal to learn the fundamental lessons of the past – including that Labour loses all chance of power when it retreats into a ghetto of comfortable agreement on ideas that have no traction in the electorate.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree.

David Beeson said...

Well, that's a pleasure to read. And a nice change from the Corbynistas who tell me how much they disagree... Thanks