With 300,000 people having just signed up for the Labour Party, I’ve come to wonder if they all know what they’re getting themselves in for. I don’t say that to be unkind or tribal - I want as many people as possible to belong to the Labour Party, to get involved with its campaigns and its culture. But I want them first to understand what it is, and why it might not be what they think it is.
On the continent, the main parties of the centre-left find their history in the revolutions of the 19th century. The Parti Socialiste in France can trace its lineage to the battle lines of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the German SPD hails from Marxist groups in the 1860s. The Partito Democratico in Italy is a descendent of the Italian Communists.
Noble histories, all. The first fighters for liberty, equality and fraternity marching their way through fraught periods of crackdowns, war and dictatorship and emerging on the other side of that treacherous pass to found new post-war nations of economic strength and relative levels of social justice and equality. They made lives better.
But just as it would be wrong to denounce their history, it would be wrong to co-opt their history as part of our own.
In the words of Morgan Phillips, the Welsh mineworker who served as Labour’s General Secretary during the 1950s, Labour “owes more to Methodism than to Marxism.” From our roots in the Liberal-Labour pact of the 1880s onwards, we have never been a revolutionary party, nor sought to become one.
We were always a radical movement, but radical in the sense of wishing to extend opportunity and liberty across the board. We founded working men’s libraries to give education to those denied it. We founded trade unions - fought for them, died for them - but not to flip the country on its head. We did it to extend a hand to management they did not always want to grasp, to work with them, be recognised and respected as equals in our labour - “by hand or by brain”, in the words of the old Clause IV.
Dan Hannan, perhaps the most radical of Conservative Eurosceptics, and a man with which few in my party will find many points of agreement, said this in a 2012 Telegraph article:
The proudest achievements of the British Left, down the years, have involved the dispersal of power from closed elites to the general population. This high-minded ambition led to religious toleration, legal rights for women, the extension of the franchise, universal education.He is right. Our greatest achievements have been to liberate people from forces which held back their potential. We freed millions from the crippling poverty of old age. The worry and stress of healthcare paid through the nose. The indefensible practice of legal gender pay segregation.
But we didn’t do that by being angry - though anger and radicalism are powerful tools - we did it by being respectably high-minded, by never talking over those who opposed us, but by responding to their arguments with reason and with passion, and not giving way. The best way to get what we wanted wasn’t to smash them out of the way, but to get them to agree.
Labour members have traditionally been, with notable exceptions, a small-c conservative body. They are not wholly devoted to the party or to politics, and that reflects itself in the party’s culture at the lower levels. These are people who’ve got through the last century in a socialist party running raffles, sharing photos of their cats, taking their kids to Scouts meetings and attending impassioned speeches after which nobody takes to the barricades, but everyone goes to the pub.
These are not people without belief or compassion. It is their compassion for the rest of humanity that makes them members, that has them out traipsing through mud and driving rain to deliver immediately-binned leaflets for a by-election to an unwinnable ward on the borough council.
It used to be a source of mockery for the socialist city council in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that they were ‘sewer socialists’, more concerned with their excellent drainage system than fighting the class struggle. We took that attitude, of gradual, understated but meaningful improvements in the living conditions of the majority, and turned it into a virtue. A very British kind of socialism.
We look now like we’re about to take a path never before trodden. It will be only the second time in our history that the most left-wing option has won a leadership election - and the first time, with Michael Foot, put an established cabinet minister and academic into the post. We are in territory unknown, and about to put to the electorate the most radical platform seen in 30 years. Come what may, I know that the members will stand by it.
That program will excite a lot of people. But from a party of kindly schoolteachers with five cats, idealistic students discovering politics for the first time, gruff trade unionists playing darts in the pub, eccentric scientists with bald patches and odd socks, don’t expect it to look like any progressive uprising you’ve seen before. A party of passion and principle and camaraderie, yes. But if you seek a revolution, look elsewhere