Movement politics, the electoral machine, and the 'masses': lessons from the early Labour Party.

Author:Lawrence, Jon
 
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There is nothing new about the problem of reconciling the idea of the left as a radical movement enacting new ways of living, and the idea of the left as a vote-winning machine, aiming to take power and enact gradual social reform. Labour needs to learn, now, from the ways in which that difficult balance was delicately achieved in the party's early years. And activists must heed another warning from history made doubly relevant by the fall-out from the referendum: to have disdain for 'the masses' will always be fatal for our political project.

When we look back to the early years of the twentieth century, two main issues stand out as problems which the Labour party still faces today. In focussing on these issues I do not want to suggest that there is nothing else to learn from, or celebrate about, the early Labour party. We should congratulate ourselves on the fact that Labour activists pioneered many unpopular causes--antiimperialism, gender equality, minority rights--which we now take for granted. Doing so reminds us that if Labour ceases to be a space for people who question the status quo--if it ceases to be radical--it will have lost its rationale. But the two historical issues I wish to highlight speak more directly to the party's current sense of crisis. They are:

  1. The recurrent tension between socialism as a radical movement of idealists pioneering new ways of living and Labour politics as a vote-maximizing strategy for securing the political power necessary to implement practical social reforms. People could operate within both camps--but this was never easy and there were always tensions.

  2. The tendency of both Labour and socialist activists to display utter contempt for the uneducated 'masses' and their apparently irrational attachment to the present economic and social order (and to the symbols of that order such as the monarchy, empire, nation state etc.)

Both issues remain at the forefront of Labour politics today. Just like in the 1980s, I frequently hear people on the party's Left saying it is more important to be true to our beliefs than to win elections. All too often I also hear shocking examples of party members infected with the hate talk of class which Owen Jones memorably exposed in his book Chavs. (1)

In many ways the renewed scepticism about electoral pragmatism represents an understandable reaction to the New Labour years, when it seemed as though possessing political beliefs--especially socialist ones--was simply a hindrance to sound, 'what-works' policy-making. This naive, post-ideological approach to government helped create some of the blind-alleys that Cameron's governments have exploited since 2010--PFIs, public sector marketization, and the slow erosion of the public service ethos in national life.

But if we just want to be true to our beliefs there are plenty of radical pressure groups we can join where we will be surrounded by like-minded activists, and where we can achieve real change by focussing our campaigning energies on specific egregious injustices (there's certainly no shortage). Labour, however, was, is and has to remain a broad coalition of radical and reformist groupings--it was brought together in 1900 by trade unionists keen to strengthen the unions' legal position and socialists determined to secure financial backing for an independent politics rooted in the interests of labour and the working class. It was designed to be both social movement and conventional...

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