Inside Story

Labour’s long road to power

How a restless party found a new way of thinking about socialism

Peter Kellner Books 3 August 2023 2421 words

Labour leader Neil Kinnock (seen here campaigning in Norwich) used the 1987 election campaign to promote a more nuanced critique of markets. Bryn Colton/Getty Images

Thirty years ago, after stepping down as the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Neil Kinnock was invited to present two documentaries for the BBC entitled Tomorrow’s Socialism. His mission: to update socialist ideology for an era that was adjusting to the end of the cold war and the collapse of communism.

He had lost two general elections in his nine years as party leader, but he had also saved Labour from annihilation and laid the ground for Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. He continued to command respect across the party.

I worked with him on those programs. For some weeks we struggled to find a new, succinct definition of socialist ideology that would be fit for purpose. It was Neil who solved the problem, and with the utmost simplicity. Modern socialism should not be an ideology at all, but an ethic. The party’s long-term aims should leave out any reference to the ownership of businesses. The relationship between labour, capital and the state should be determined by the circumstances of the day. The party should abandon the goal, set out in 1918 and inscribed on each membership card, of “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” Instead, it should define itself in terms of liberty, social justice and opportunity for all.

This excursion down memory lane is prompted by a new book, more relevant to today’s centre-left throughout the democratic world than is suggested by its clunky title. In Futures of Socialism: “Modernisation,” the Labour Party, and the British Left, 1973–1997, Colm Murphy tells an important story more completely than anyone has done before: how Labour, step by painful step, shed its constitutional commitment to the abolition of capitalism and redefined its basic doctrine.

Everyone who played a part in or followed the drama at the time will have their own take on his analysis. Mine is that Murphy exaggerates the impact of some of the party’s fringe groups and understates the personal roles played by successive party leaders. But his book is likely to remain for some time the fullest account of what happened during those years.

Murphy’s story brings to mind Humpty Dumpty’s famous remark to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” The etymology of “socialism” has ensured that disputes about its definition have been weaponised in a bitter struggle to wield power on the left. The word dates not from the time of Karl Marx, as many assume, or even from Welsh philanthropist Robert Owen’s cooperative model. Henri de Saint-Simon, a French politician and economist, invented the term in the 1820s. He wanted to replace autocracy with a more meritocratic society, one in which the arbitrary, self-serving power of the church, aristocracy, landowners and the military was replaced by that of merchants, manufacturers, scholars and workers coming together for the common good.

For pre-democratic times, Saint-Simon’s “socialism” was a radical vision of dispersed power. He fiercely opposed an over-mighty state. What Marx did was appropriate the term as part of his dream to replace capitalism with communism. At their heart, and for more than a century, the battles over the meaning of “socialism” have been over whose ideas to update for a more democratic age: Saint-Simon’s or Marx’s?

Labour’s adoption in 1918 of “common ownership” in Clause 4 of its constitution put the party closer to Marx (though, in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, its authors tried to make it not too close). For the next forty years, Labour leaders espoused the language and adopted “Clause 4” policies: up to a point, that is. Clement Attlee’s post-1945 government nationalised the energy, transport, and iron and steel industries, but left most of the private sector alone. Although hailed by subsequent left-wingers as the radical model for future Labour governments, Attlee stopped well short of implementing the strategy demanded by the party’s grassroots. In December 1944, the party conference backed the nationalisation of land and all heavy industry. Attlee simply ignored it.

Attlee’s government lasted for six years. It was Britain’s first majority government with the freedom to secure parliamentary backing for its full manifesto program. By supporting a mixed economy rather than pursuing the eventual abolition of capitalism, it provoked the question: what kind of socialism did the party really believe in?

Hugh Gaitskell attempted to answer it. He succeeded Attlee as party leader in 1955, four years into thirteen years of Conservative rule. In 1960, following Labour’s third general election defeat, he told the party’s annual conference that he wanted to amend the party’s aims. The delegates thwarted him. A messy procedural deal prevented a vote in which Gaitskell would have suffered an acutely embarrassing defeat. Instead the issue was dropped. It would be more than thirty years before it would be picked up again.

How then, could Labour square the circle of being nominally in favour of “collective ownership” but not really in practice? Harold Wilson, who became party leader following Gaitskell’s death in 1963 and led Labour to victory the following year, offered an ingenious solution. He drew on the work of the party’s “revisionist” thinkers to argue that socialism was not purely an ideology; it was also an ethic. He said that the Labour Party owed “more to Methodism than to Marx.” He didn’t disown Marx; he argued for the state to have a major role in planning a modern economy rather than just leave the private sector alone.

In government, Wilson didn’t oversee much planning; but in terms of keeping on board the rival wings of the party, he was successful.

The ethic-plus-ideology compromise held for the next three decades — though only just. In the early 1980s, following the defeat of the Labour government in 1979, the party’s left made a determined effort to restore the primacy of ideological socialism. Its most prominent MP, Tony Benn, challenged Denis Healey, the incumbent, for the party’s deputy leadership and came within one percentage point of victory. Though the left was defeated, the vote was so close, and the danger from Benn’s faction seemed so great, that almost thirty Labour MPs ended up defecting to the newly formed Social Democratic Party, which explicitly repudiated the ideology embedded in Clause 4.

These divisions contributed to Labour’s worst postwar defeat in 1983. In October that year, Kinnock was elected leader. His Welsh roots were on the left of the party, but he opposed the stance of Benn and his followers. A charismatic speaker, Kinnock was Labour’s best hope for holding the party together and hauling it back to electability.

During his nine years as Labour’s leader, Kinnock took his party on a journey of ideological reform. His starting point was an updated version of the conventional critique of capitalism. In his party conference speech in 1984 he warned of “the irrational response to technological and economic change which the market economy and the social market economy makes, and has always made — huge numbers of unemployed, millions more who live in constant fear of unemployment and the insecurity which it brings.”

In 1987, Kinnock shifted towards a more nuanced critique: “whilst the market is an adequate system for deciding the price and availability of many goods and services… the market alone will never ensure that flow of investment in machines, people, skills and ideas which is necessary to gain and sustain long-term economic strength and the employment that comes with it.” Instead of rejecting markets as such, he now rejected markets “alone.”

The following year he went further: “There are those, like the government, who simply say ‘private good, public bad.’ There are those who say, in a mirror image, ‘public good, private bad.’ Neither of them are dealing with the realities… Neither are asking the real question ‘does it work?’”

Kinnock went on to attack Labour’s left wing even more directly: “Comrades, the day may come when this conference, this movement, is faced with a choice of socialist economies. The debate will be fascinating as the Labour Party conference chooses between the two. But until that day comes… the fact is that the kind of economy we will be faced with when we win the election will be a market economy. That is what we have to deal with and we will have to make it work better than the Tories do.”

In his final conference speech before the 1992 election, Kinnock took his evolving argument to its logical conclusion: “An innovation-driven economy needs a tax system and economic policies which promote sustained investment. It needs monopolies and mergers regulations that promote competition and safeguard company programmes of research and development. We shall make those changes.” Common ownership? Forget it.

Despite gaining almost fifty seats, Labour lost the 1992 election and Kinnock resigned as party leader. But one piece of unfinished business remained. Labour’s membership cards still set out the goal of common ownership. As long as it did, left-wing party members could point to Clause 4 of the party’s constitution to insist on sticking to their ambition of one day killing off capitalism. This was what made Kinnock’s TV documentaries so significant. For the first time, someone who had led the party explicitly renounced ideological socialism altogether.

At first Kinnock’s plan found few takers. Even Blair was sceptical. In June 1994, a few months after the programs were broadcast, Blair stood for party leader. Asked in a TV interview if he would change Labour’s stated aims, Blair dismissed the suggestion. “No one,” he said, wanted it to be “a priority for the party.”

He soon changed his mind. Three months later he told the party that he wanted it to do just that. The following April a special party conference voted to abandon the aims it had espoused for almost eight decades, and committed the party instead to the ethic of serving “the many not the few.” In July 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of Attlee’s 1945 election victory, Blair set out his concept of socialism in a lecture to the Fabian Society.

“Since the collapse of communism,” he said, “the ethical basis of socialism is the only one that has stood the test of time. This socialism is based on a moral assertion that individuals are interdependent… This concept of socialism requires a form of politics in which we share responsibility both to fight poverty, prejudice and unemployment, and to create the conditions in which we can truly build one nation — tolerant, fair, enterprising, inclusive… Once socialism is defined in this way — as social-ism — we can be liberated from our history and not chained by it.”

By inserting the hyphen — “social-ism” — Blair was putting himself firmly on the side of Saint-Simon and against Marx. He underlined the point by rebranding his party as “New Labour.” In going on to win three general elections and remaining prime minister for ten years, he could ensure that his philosophy took root.

Murphy’s book ends in 1997, but it’s worth bringing his story up to date. Ideological socialism returned for a spell after Jeremy Corbyn was elected party leader in 2015. Asked in a TV interview in 2018 whether capitalism got anything right, Corbyn floundered. He knew that it would be electorally disastrous to say he wanted to kill off the private sector, but his life-long opposition to it was clear from his answer: “Well, it does invest, mainly for its own benefit. But it does of course get challenged. Isn’t that what social movements are about, isn’t that what trade unions are about? Isn’t that what our democracy is about?”

In 2019 Corbyn led Labour to an even worse defeat than in 1983. Enough party members got the message of that trauma to elect the more moderate Keir Starmer as leader — one who has become more moderate still by ditching some of the more left-wing policies he had espoused in the contest to become leader. He picked up the “ethical socialism” baton that Kinnock had passed to Blair and Brown, and which Corbyn had not so much dropped as thrown aside.

In May this year he went even further. “I believe in the power of dynamic government,” he told the British Chambers of Commerce. “But I also believe in the brilliance of British business and I’ve changed my Labour Party to reflect that. We’re not just a pro-business party, we’re a party that is proud of being pro-business, that respects the contribution profit makes to jobs, growth and our tax base, gets that working people want success as well as support. Understands that robust private sector growth is the only way we pay our way in the world.”

Not even Blair’s embrace of ethical socialism in his early days as leader was as effusive in its praise of capitalism.

Within the next eighteen months, Britain’s voters will elect a new government. All recent evidence — from by-elections, local elections and opinion polls — points to Starmer becoming prime minister, though whether he will enjoy the luxury of a clear overall majority remains to be seen.

What also remains to be seen is how what Starmer calls “the moral case for socialism” will look in practice once he is running the country rather than devising plans from the frustrating comfort of opposition. He will face huge challenges: climate change, the uncertain future of globalisation, making sure AI does more good than harm, the fallout from Brexit, and a weak British economy where living standards have stalled and poverty spread. Can ethical socialism rise to these challenges, or will it be vulnerable to another Corbyn-style assault from the left?

Even if ideological socialism has been laid to rest, the doctrine of ethical socialism is certain to evolve. Murphy rightly links the modernisation story to a broader range of issues, such as gender and race. At its core, is “socialism” becoming more a cultural than economic project? Its purpose looks set to be a continuing source of debate and dispute.

Murphy’s conclusion from Labour’s painful transition from ideology to ethic is that the party’s “irresistible restlessness and creativity” is its “enduring virtue,” even if this makes for a bumpy ride. The story of how bumpy, and how successful, that ride turns out to be over the next decade or so will deserve a sequel. •

Futures of Socialism: “Modernisation,” the Labour Party, and the British Left, 1973–1997
By Colm Murphy | Cambridge University Press | $160.95 | 320 pages