The historians' view: What does the future hold for the Labour party?

Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation from rank outsider to bookmakers’ favourite electrified the Labour leadership campaign. But what does that campaign tell us about the party’s prospects for winning back power? Two historians offer their personal perspectives...

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Brian Brivati:

When Labour loses power, it swings left. Following the party’s split at the formation of a Conservative-dominated National Government in 1931, George Lansbury – a pacifist – replaced Ramsay Macdonald as leader. He was destroyed by Ernest Bevin at the 1935 party conference for repudiating the party’s policy of opposing the European dictators. Lansbury thought sanctions were economic warfare. Bevin ridiculed him for “hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”. He was replaced by Clement Attlee.

Labour won a landslide in 1945, then held on narrowly in 1950; when they suffered defeat in 1951, the Bevanites (supporters of Nye Bevan) dominated the post-mortem. But while the party swung left, the leadership did not. Attlee stayed on as leader to ensure that the right kept control, trying to prevent his arch rival, Herbert Morrison, from taking over.

When Labour lost in 1970, having won in 1964 and 1966, it adopted one of the most left-wing manifestos in its history. From 1945 to 1951 the manifesto had sat on the cabinet table, and every word was implemented. From 1974 to 1979 every word was ignored. So after defeat in 1979, the left tried to change the rules to ensure that they would never again be shut out.

Labour leadership changes have rarely been unpredictable events. There has traditionally been much loyalty to leaders. When Wilson resigned mid-term in 1976, it was Callaghan who was positioned to succeed; yet when he in turn resigned, things became extremely messy. The already veteran left-winger Michael Foot just beat Denis Healey for the leadership. But it was Tony Benn and his entryist supporters from Militant and other hard-left groups that made the 1980s a turbulent decade for Labour leaders.

With the election of John Smith in 1992 and then Tony Blair in 1994, the real contest went underground. Brown’s long leadership campaign and the Shakespearean duel between the brothers Miliband kept the leadership interesting, but most of the action was behind the scenes. In 2015 the leadership has perhaps got a little too interesting!

When Labour was defeated in 1983 – at the time, its worst electoral performance since the Second World War – Tony Benn’s response was magnificent in its folly. The lesson Benn took away from that election was that at last millions of people had voted for socialism, so more – not less – left-wing socialism was the route to victory. The precedents of the past 100 years do not support this notion. Most of what seemed outlandish politics of the hard left in the 1970s, such as gay rights and the sharing economy, is now mainstream – except the two key issues that make Labour electable or unelectable: the economy and defence. Labour does not usually win elections with an economic policy not in accord with the consensus of the time. Labour does not usually win elections when advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Blairites suggested that these observations were universal truths from history. Historians know there are no such things. Simply because Labour has often swung to the left after defeat and never won a general election with a radical economic vision does not mean that it never could win such an election. These debates will not go away.

Brian Brivati’s books include a biography of Hugh Gaitskell and The End of Decline: Blair and Brown in Power (Politico’s Publishing, 2007)

 

Dr Laura Beers:

On one level, the leadership contest has been a very modern campaign in its use of technology to reach out to voters and encourage participation and party registration. But if modernisation is taken to mean abandonment of Attlee-era ideas of socialism and state ownership, things look somewhat different.

When Attlee and other social democratic leaders introduced sweeping nationalisation and state intervention in the market after the Second World War, most viewed this as a ‘modern’ renegotiation of the 19th-century liberal consensus. The postwar mixed economy suffered a near-mortal blow in the 1970s and 80s. Kinnock and Blair led the Labour party during a period when the political firmament in Britain (and internationally) had shifted dramatically. They believed Labour could remain relevant only by advocating a more pro-business, individualist, social democratic future. The question being posed by Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters is whether it is now possible to reopen the debate about the ideal relationship between the state, the market and the individual in modern society.

One thing this contest has also shown is that there’s no substitute for the intimacy of the hustings. Personal connection between representative and represented had been largely severed by more-mediated political communication via the press, film and radio in the first decades of the 20th century, and more recently through social media. Corbyn’s campaign, in particular, with its emphasis on mass meetings, offered an opportunity to reestablish that physical connection between politicians and supporters. If Corbyn wins the leadership, it will be interesting to see whether other politicians start to rethink their reliance on mediated communication.

One other historic change is the possible election of Labour’s first permanent female leader. But that didn’t stop more traditional questions being asked. Both Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper took offence at the debate over whether Cooper being a mother and Kendall not was relevant to their fitness to lead the party. But there remains a larger question about the difficulties of combining motherhood with a political career. In the UK, long parliamentary sittings and cabinet sessions have been notoriously family unfriendly.

Margaret Bondfield, who in 1929 became the first female cabinet member, was characterised as being married to her career. © Corbis

Britain’s first and second female cabinet ministers, Margaret Bondfield (1929) and Ellen Wilkinson (1945), remained single and were often characterised as being married to their careers. Later, neither Barbara Castle nor Jennie Lee, though married, had children.

Margaret Thatcher, of course, is the exception that proves the rule. As Thatcher emphasised, she did not work before her children were school age, and she was able to employ domestic help. The House of Commons has since evolved to become more family friendly, and it’s a testament to changing political culture that one of the Labour leadership candidates is a mother of three. 

Dr Laura Beers is a lecturer in modern British history at the University of Birmingham, and author of Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party (Harvard, 2010).

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