Guestblog: The problem with the Labour Party (by Stephen Burgess)

Guestblog: The problem with the Labour Party (by Stephen Burgess)

Stephen Burgess is an academic scientist. Politically speaking, he self-identifies as left-of-centre, although he typically feels to the right-of-centre amongst other academics. He grew up with a pathological hatred of the Tories, but to this day isn’t fully sure where that came from.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author alone.

I am a scientist. When you are writing a scientific paper, you make your main point at the beginning, and then you provide evidence to support your argument. So here goes: the problem with the Labour Party is that they do not have a defining ideology, but instead view themselves as the party of the working people. The difficulty with this is that the working people whom the Labour Party was founded to support no longer exist, at least not in the same way that they did when the Labour Party was founded, and the party does not have an ideological foundation to fall back on.

“But wait!” I hear you cry, “the Conservatives have conservatism, and the Liberals have liberalism, but the Labour Party has socialism.” To which I answer that Labour does have socialism, but (in my view) their primary identity is not as the party of socialism, but as the party of the working people. And now I will set out why I believe this to be the case, and why I believe it to be problematic.

  1. Historical perspective
    While it would be overly romantic to state that the genesis of the Conservative and Liberal parties was entirely ideological, both parties have been shaped by the ideological issues of the day for over 200 years. In contrast, the Labour Party was founded because no-one was advocating for the working people. Hence Labour was born not out of ideology, but out of pragmatic necessity. It did not represent an ideological belief, but instead a section of society. While several have tried to pull the party in different ideological directions, this has largely been unsuccessful, and its core identity as the party of the working people still remains.
  2. Identity politics
    Whether consciously or unconsciously, the contemporary Labour Party spends less time advocating in favour of the merits of their policies, and more time explaining that they are not the Conservative Party (and therefore are good and not evil, and support the working people rather than seeking to harm the working people). This is the basis of identity politics. The appeal for support is not because our policies are better than theirs, but because you are one of us, and so you should vote for us, not for them. While not every piece of Labour communication is phrased in this way, this appeal is pervasive. It is evident in Corbyn’s viewpoint on Brexit: “We should be leading the negotiations”, with no sense as to how he would lead the negotiations any differently, as well as in the generic and vapid Labour slogans: “For the many, not the few” and “Building a fairer society”. There is nothing about these messages that is specific to the Labour Party. Every Conservative and Liberal MP throughout the country would happily support Labour’s slogans – Conservatives would help the many with conservative values, and Liberals would want to build a fairer Britain based on liberal values, but each would support the sentiment. These slogans only make sense as campaigning tools if there is the implicit claim that the Labour Party is the only party that is “for the many” and the only party that can build a fairer society – again, this is the politics of identity.
  3. Division and mistrust
    All political parties are broad churches of opinion. But only the Labour Party has such depth of division that centerist members look with distain at leftist members, and leftist members entirely disavow the Blairite years. Again, this debate is often centred around identity, not policy. But more than this, if the party’s central identity were a particular ideology, then a robust debate could be had around the meaning of socialism or of progressivism – or of whatever that ideology was. But as the party’s core identity is the working people, there is no consensus point to centre a debate around. Rational individuals will disagree on what is the best way to support the working people. Both the division in the party, and the manner of debate about this division, provide evidence that the party does not have a robust central ideology.

Conclusions

The foundational premise of the Labour Party was the needs of the working people. This was a fair axis to build a party around when “the working people” was a sizeable and relatively homogeneous portion of society with shared goals and ambitions. But this portion of society no longer exists. Beyond that, when traditional Labour supporters look at the modern Labour Party, they don’t see “the party of the working people”. To move on, Labour needs to adopt an ideological foundation, and offer a message that is both distinctive to that ideology, and that is based on policy, not identity.

3 thoughts on “Guestblog: The problem with the Labour Party (by Stephen Burgess)

  1. This is political slogans dressed up as serious thinking. It takes partial facts and then makes sweeping and unbalanced assertions. Let’s take but 3. It’s clear the Labour Party is deeply divided. But it didn’t conduct a purge of its MPs in the same way as some others in the past year. And a party within a party is hardly unique to Labour – ERG / Brexit / UKIP anyone? Next is the idea that Labour appeals to people (and Tory haters) and doesn’t have an ideology or policies. Whether you agree with the policies or not, there is common ground amongst independent thinkers that the Labour manifesto was too full / long on ideas whereas the Conservative offer was stripped of any detail and was a basic appeal to identity. Lastly the assertions about “working classes”. What it means to be “working class” has changed and is changing. It is different in towns to cities and different again in rural areas. The old Labour vote was skills / industry based as much as anything where people in similar industries across the country had similar concerns, felt a degree of kinship and voted the same way. That has broken down (some would argue was closed down) and the socially conservative side of people living in towns (where the vote changed) came to the fore. This change isn’t new – remember Lord Glassman’s Blue Labour? But there is ample evidence that the difference in the election was not so much about “working” but people who do not work – pensioners and their preference for identity over the economic concerns of younger people. Outside of agreeing an EU withdrawal agreement (the choices about the future lie ahead) there is nothing in the winning offer that answers any questions about economic uncertainty or the needs of people who work in communities feeling left behind. It is inane to think that this is a new problem. It’s been known and argued over since the 70s. Slogans are easy, solutions aren’t.

    None of this seeks in any way to underestimate the real and difficult choices the Labour Party has to make or the difficulty it will have in making them in light of its electoral rules (and entryists). But beating a poor quality opponent does not make the deep problems of the other / winning side any less serious. There is an undoubted euphoria and emerging sense of hubris about the winning side. The challenges we face are serious and deserve better analysis. Let’s also remember that the Parliamentary majority is a factor of the voting system and first past the post. The idea that this government enjoys a majority (never mind a big majority) of popular support (or its side / view of politics) is false. Anyone claiming One Nation status or credibility, would do well to remember that.

    1. This doesn’t seem to be a response to Steve’s post?
      In your reply you’ve attacked the Conservatives, but Steve’s post doesn’t seek to defend them, instead his post explores a potential cause of the weakness that you and he both see in the current Labour Party.

      You’ve characterised Steve’s post as claiming that Labour doesn’t have any policies (an easy claim for you to refute!), but this isn’t what Steve claimed: he said “the contemporary Labour Party spends less time advocating in favour of the merits of their policies, and more time explaining that they are not the Conservative Party”. This I think is harder to refute: a lot of Labour’s time in this election was spent talking about the NHS, an area where there was little difference in the manifestos between any of the big 3 parties.

    2. Steph – thanks for replying. It would be helpful for me if you could make clear where you disagree. There are two central points that you could disagree with: 1) that Labour doesn’t have a central ideology but rather a core identity, and 2) that this is a problem. Do you disagree with point 1? – and if so, what do you think Labour’s central ideology is? Or do you disagree with point 2? – that it is okay to base the party on being “the party of the people”. I agree with you that the nature of the “working classes” is outmoded and rapidly eroding – this is a central part of my argument and why I believe Labour having this as its core identity is a problem.

      On point 3, there is a degree of whataboutism in your argument. Clearly other parties also have divisions, but the discussion here is about Labour. And none of the divisions in the other parties come close to the level of vitriol and personal attack that are common in the Labour Party. Tony Blair is the most successful Labour politician of recent times, and a substantial portion of the party have no interest in what he has to say, and even deny that he is truly part of the Labour Party.

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