I Labourism in decay



The crisis of Labourism: Britain in the New Times

New Times is afraud, a counterfeit, a humbug. It palms offThatcherite values as socialist, shores up the Thatcherite market with the pretended politics of choice, fits out the Thatcherite individual with progressive consumerism, makes consumption itself the stuff ofpolitics. New Times is a mirror image of Thatcherism passing for socialism. New Times is Thatcherism in drag.

Ambalavaner Sivanandan1

Labour’s own inured mentality - its continued acceptance of the destiny proclaimed for the party in the 1918 constitution, its stubborn rejection of the lessons of actual experience since 1918, stood in the way of actual adaptation.

Peter Clarke2

Since 1951 the electoral base of Labourism has been gradually contracting. . . . Labour’s dominant image has become fixed by its role as the defender of the key institutions and gains of post-war social democracy.

Andrew Gamble3


Following the Attlee government’s defeat in 1951 which brought an abrupt end to the forward march of the British working-class, Labourism atrophied. By the late 1970s, it was in prolonged crisis. New Labour arose out of vigorous debate about the Left’s degeneration in the radically altered economic and political environment of post-war Britain. This chapter examines the contours of the crisis leading to the development of New Labour’s prospectus for modernisation in the 1990s. As rising stars on the Left during the Thatcher decade, Blair and Brown participated in the protracted inquiry into Labourism’s decline. They did so alongside strategists and intellectuals who flooded into the Labour Party from the worlds of consulting, advertising, marketing and communications, alongside academic institutions and the universities. Irrespective of the performance of the Blair/Brown governments, thinkers and ideas that originated on the Left shaped New Labour’s nascent programme by critically appraising the legacy of British Labourism.

This chapter considers the breakdown of Labourism in relation to six interwoven themes: the crisis of socialist ideology; structural change in post-war society; electoral vulnerability; organisational atrophy and fragmentation; the demise of social democratic institutions; and Labour’s historical failings as an effective governing party. The central argument is that New Labour transcended the ambiguity of ideology and identity that bedevilled the post-war party, fashioning a more persuasive political and policy strategy. Even so, the influential ‘New Times’ analysis elaborated in Marxism Today reinforced New Labour’s intellectual defensiveness and paranoia, eventually undermining its achievements in office. The chapter begins, however, by addressing the wider intellectual ecosystem of the British Left.

The backdrop to the discussion of Labourism’s decay was the vexed relationship between the Labour Party and the British progressive intelligentsia. Noteworthy journals including Marxism Today assumed a renewed importance in the 1980s and 1990s, given that the association between the party and social democratic intellectuals that defined the post-war settlement was breaking down.4 Revisionist social democracy appeared to have reached an impasse. In the after- math of the Winter of Discontent, the post-war system of managed corporatism was discredited. Orthodox Keynesianism was undermined by the spectre of economic instability and stagflation. Moreover, the social democratic tradition struggled to address questions posed by the rise of relative affluence and the growth of post-materialism, particularly environmentalism; the recognition of personal identity as a major cleavage in democratic politics; the influence of feminism and the women’s movement; alongside the politics of race and ethnicity. The launch of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981 underlined the breach between the Labour Party and the revisionist intellectuals of the Gaitskell/ Crosland era. During the 1980s, an alternative intellectual network emerged on the Left that supplanted the traditional ties between Labour and the progressive intelligentsia which blossomed in the post-war decades. As a consequence, there was a radical shift in thinking followed by a major reconfiguration of ideas.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >