Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Has Labour met the goals it set in 1900?

The trade unionists and socialists gathering at the Memorial Hall in 1900 were animated by twin objectives. For the trade unionists, the key goal was to improve the economic position of their members.

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Particularly for the socialists, this aim was explicitly linked to challenging the power of the landed, financial and business interests who monopolised contemporary politics.

Then, as now, the Labour party was shaped by British society. At its most successful, the Labour party understands the challenge presented by social change and orientates its policies accordingly.

Let me cite two major social changes which have changed the nature of Labour politics since 1900.

The first is the creation of a welfare state. The experience of two world wars, and of mass unemployment during the 1930s, gave Labour the chance to develop a consensus around strong public services and progressive redistribution. This was a Labour triumph. But having created the welfare state Labour was faced in the 1950s by a politics redefined by its existence. Working-class voters who before 1945 paid no income tax were, by the 1950s, income taxpayers. Naturally, they began to develop a taxpayers’ perspective on the welfare state of a kind absent previously.

A second major change is the sharp decline of the trade union movement. This was accelerated by the policies of the Thatcher administration, but the underlying drivers of this change lay in the globalisation of the world economy and the explosion of new technologies that accompanied it. Of course, the Labour party always recognised the need to build a broad electoral coalition. Indeed, at times – 1945 and 1966 in particular – Labour achieved exactly such a coalition of trade unionists and non trade unionists. But the lamentable decline of trade unionism – especially in the private sector – since the 1980s radically alters the political and electoral context in which the Labour party operates.

As such, the Labour movement has both transcended and fallen short of the goals of the delegates at Memorial Hall. It has succeeded in improving the economic position not just of trade union members, but of everyone in British society. It has done this by creating the public services on which we all rely, and by attempting to redistribute income and wealth to the majority. But it has also been forced to respond to changes in the structure of Britain’s economy and society. These changes – especially since the 1980s – have tended to benefit wealthy powerful minorities of the kind indicted by the foundation socialists at Memorial Hall.

Standing up for the majority against vested economic interests remains our core purpose as a party. In the 21st century, those on middle and lower incomes find their living standards squeezed. Reversing that squeeze and reducing the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy and privileged remains Labour’s objective. Yet how we go about achieving such redistribution is the tricky part. In 1900 Labour might have cried ‘tax the land’; in 1945 ‘tax the plutocrats’. In 2011, the method and politics appear trickier.

Read also…

Paul Richards on Remembering Memorial Hall: ‘Reading the list of delegates, their names, addresses and organisations at Labour’s founding conference brings home the nature of the nascent Labour party’

Greg Rosen asks What would Keir Hardie make of Labour 111 years on?: ‘Keir Hardie’s first manifesto included three key aims: home rule, a minimum wage and temperance’

On the 111th anniversary of the Labour party Denis MacShane MP writes How one wishes to have been the proverbial fly on the wall 111 years ago today, on Tuesday 27 February 1900 in the Memorial Hall in Clerkenwell.

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Gregg McClymont MP

is member of parliament for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East

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