David Coates

Observing British Labour Politics from Afar


Reflections on the strategic dilemmas currently facing the British Labour Party, originally published (June 13, 2013) as “Walking Forward, Looking Back” on the Political Insight/Blog webpage of the U.K. Political Studies Association.  The original version is at http://www.psa.ac.uk/political-insight/blog/walking-forward-looking-back


As the next general election looms on the horizon, it is time to consider again the potential of Labour in power. The Labour Party has been in power before, of course: in power on sufficient occasions now to make its past record in government an important point of reference as we consider its potential going forward. Yet gleaning lessons from Labour’s past to shape the party’s future is as depressing as it is essential. It is depressing because the party’s record isn’t that great, and anyway, the party always seems to need a long period of opposition before it is ready for government again. It is nonetheless essential because the general features and limits of Labour politics are clear enough if we look back, and so too are the various ways in which those limits might yet be transcended.

Previous Labour Governments have required a long post-mortem before generating a new and electorally appealing program. The Attlee government left Labour in opposition for 13 years. The Wilson-Callaghan governments left Labour in opposition for 18. Each time more than the policy stable was cleared. A new generation of politicians also rose to prominence. One problem the current Labour team has is the personal involvement of its leading figures in the New Labour project of Blair and Brown, and the persistence in the parliamentary party of residues of those two camps. It is a problem because Labour won’t win power again, or at least persuade its electorate to support it with the necessary enthusiasm until it breaks completely with New Labour.

It is intriguing to have Ed Miliband as party leader; the son of the Labour Party’s leading intellectual critic of a generation ago. The Ralph Miliband thesis was that Labour radicalism – vital to service the interests of the party’s predominantly working class base – was bound to fall victim to the necessary limits of parliamentary socialism. In his biography of Nye Bevan, Michael Foot reports him saying that:

‘climbing to power by articulating the demands of the dispossessed must always wear a predatory visage to the property-owning class…although all the time its heart is tender with the promise of peaceful gradualism…To satisfy the workers, the Labour party must fulfill the threat of its face, and so destroy the political conditions necessary to economic gradualism. To calm the fears of private enterprise it must betray its promise to the workers, and so lose their support’.

It was the senior Miliband’s thesis that Labour in power would necessarily do the latter, calming the fears of private enterprise by abandoning its radical promise. The task of his son is to see if, on the contrary, the Labour Party can this time round find some way to meet the demands of the dispossessed.

The opportunity is certainly there. The old growth model of only lightly regulated business activity and restricted government spending is now widely discredited, thanks to Wall Street excess and George Osborne’s stubbornness. Right-wing austerity politics are keeping the UK economy stagnant, and tearing the heart out of Mediterranean economies from Greece to Portugal. Just how much youth unemployment can we tolerate? So there is a genuine opportunity opening up across Europe to say that government spending and greater social justice are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. But to make that claim work electorally, the new leadership of the Labour Party has to (a) believe it, (b) be prepared to say it over and over again, and (c) link its case for a more socially just and managed capitalism to core social democratic values that are so much more evident in British popular culture than they are here in America.

After all, the modern Labour Party faces an electorate that is better educated in global realities than did Labour parties of the past. So it is certainly possible to make the progressive case by treating the electorate with an intelligence so visibly missing in Tea Party circles here: by reaching out to the best of the UK electorate on issues of climate change and the associated need for green regulation; reaching out on the ratcheting down of wages under foreign competition and the associated need for fair trade rather than free trade; and reaching out on work-life balance issues for the two-income family and the associated need for a new set of worker rights and a more extensive industrial democracy. In the clash between models of capitalism, Osborne’s model visibly doesn’t work. So rather than offering to run his version better than he can, the Miliband team need to argue for a complete rupture with it, and press the case for the construction of a more prosperous Britain – one whose prosperity is anchored in equally shared income growth, equally shared sacrifice, and equally shared social and economic power.

The new Labour Party needs to learn from its past that if it is to enjoy success in power the next time round, it must enter office determined to widen the constraints imposed on radical governments by those holding the levers of economic power. It needs to learn too that it can only do that if, ahead of the election, it has already built popular support for a new social contract based on the genuine democratization of power. The leadership of the Labour Party needs to develop more than a set of discrete policy proposals between now and the next election. It also needs to anchor those proposals in a powerful hegemonic alternative to the contemporary conservative orthodoxy. It hasn’t much time to do that bigger counter-hegemonic job. It hasn’t even shown yet that it realises that such an exercise is necessary. Indeed, if Ed Balls’ big policy speech last week is any guide, the danger is that the new leadership will try and get by simply by playing safe. But that will not be enough – probably not enough to win over floating voters, but even if it is, it is certainly not enough to win Labour the space in power to test the limits of Labourism. So now is the time for courage and creativity by this new generation of Labour leaders – time to talk values again, time to call for popular support for radical change, time to design and advocate an entirely new future for Britain. Now is the time for this generation of Labour leaders to prove Ed Miliband’s father wrong. Ralph Miliband would have wanted nothing less!


This argument is developed further in “Labour After New Labour: Escaping the Debt,” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, volume 15, 2013, pp. 38-52.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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