The Labour challenge

103 years ago today – on February 15th 1906 – the modern British Labour Party formally came into being. There had been various precursors, including the Independent Labour Party and the Labour Representation Committee. But on this day, a few days after the general election of that year that produced a landslide victory for the Liberal Party and the first significant number of MPs for the Labour Representation Committee, the latter MPs met and decided to adopt the name ‘the Labour Party’, with Keir Hardy as its first leader. The Irish Labour Party was formed six years later.

The British Labour Party, which in some ways was more of a movement than a political party in its original state, adopted its constitution in 1918, and this included a statement of aims and values set out in Clause IV. This was drafted by Sidney Webb and read:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

As is well known, the original Clause IV was dropped and replaced in 2005 by a different wording that makes no reference to common ownership of anything. The new version reads:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

The problem with such a formula is that it can mean pretty much anything and could be endorsed by most political parties, at least with just a little interpretation. And therein lies the problem for democratic socialist, or social democratic, parties everywhere: how to be distinctive, and how to make a case for being elected that is based on something more than a claim of competence.

The Labour Party in Ireland, in a recent key policy document, produced by its ‘21st Century Commission‘, set out its agenda as follows:

“Government is, or should be, about change and social progress. Government should be the instrument through which our society is changed and renewed. Through which disadvantage and injustice are corrected. Through which prosperity is protected, not just for the few but for the benefit of the community, and through which society ensures that there is opportunity for all.”

There are clear echoes in that statement of the new British Clause IV.  But beyond such aspirational values, the clear defining argument that runs through the document is about the role of government and of that state, with a recurring subtext that free markets have failed and need to be controlled. Perhaps the critical statement, on page 14 of the dcument, is:

“The Labour Party stands for a dynamic, positive role for the State working through responsive and accountable public institutions at local, national, and international levels. We insist that, in expressing the democratically determined public good, the State can be an enabling, civilising and bonding force. The State is central to the creation and distribution of wealth through the investment, development and management of the country’s assets and resources. It is also responsible for the provision of effective, high quality and accountable public services, regulation of markets for the public good and a fair taxation system.”

The challenge for all centre-left parties has for some time been to define what they actually stand for, and during the years of spectacular economic growth that proved difficult and led to well-meaning but not terribly substantive statements about community values. After the recent economic shocks there is a newly visible tendency to dust off some more statist principles and emphasise the policies of regulation and redistribution, and the occasional toying with renewed commitment to universal benefits. Current opinion polls in Ireland suggest that this may be striking a chord with the electorate.

In the longer run, however, it seems unlikely to me that a return to Clause IV-type policy statements will secure the future success of democratic socialism. Alongside the growing popularity in Ireland of the Labour Party there is also evidence of fairly widespread public hostility to the public service. Voters may be uneasy about the current administration and its policies, but that is what it is: in Ireland the beneficiary is the Labour Party, in the UK (with very similar popular sentiment on the issues themselves) it is the Conservatives. People are worried and inclined to favour change.

I believe that successful centre-left parties are a vital ingredient of a stable and democratic society. But what that means in policy or ideology terms is still far from clear. Labour Parties should not allow themselves to be distracted by the current economic turmoil; it is unlikely to lead to a popular taste for nationalisation or democratic centralism. Many parties, including the Irish Labour Party, have recognised the need to secure a modern political definition of ‘socialism’. But, I think, they haven’t found it yet.

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