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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.